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Chapter Eight To The End Of The First Draft Of The Novel 'The Public Sector Inspector Inspector'

Introduction

Now (June 2014) I have finished writing the first draft of a novel called The Public Sector Inspector Inspector. These are chapters eight to thirty-two (the final chapter). The first seven chapters are here:

http://www.devtome.com/doku.php?id=my_novel_the_public_sector_inspector_inspector_-_1st_7_chapters_of_1st_draft

To work out the plot and storyline I first of all wrote it in screenplay format, which I put on Devtome here:

http://www.devtome.com/doku.php?id=the_public_sector_inspector_inspector_-_screenplay_version

It might be interesting to look at the similarities and differences between the story in screenplay format and novel format. Of course both versions have all the sorts of mistakes you would expect to see in a first draft.

P. B.


Chapter Eight

Nick's car pulled up at the address that Jeffrey had put on the piece of paper he had given Peter. It was a mews house in a lovely little closed-off street just off one of the city center's nicer streets. Outside it stood a quite new, but not top-of-the-range, black Mercedes saloon.

Nick and Peter got out of their car. Peter opened one of the back doors of the car and pulled out his rucksack, along with a case that Nick had lent him and which had in it the smart clothes Peter had bought for work.

Peter reached into one of the pockets of his trousers and pulled out a car key. He blipped it. The black Mercedes bleeped back and flashed its lights. Its doors could be heard unlocking. Peter blipped the key again and the car locked itself.

“That's a nice motor,” said Nick.

“Certainly is,” agreed Peter.

Peter and Nick went to the front door of the mews house and Peter pulled another key from a pocket. He unlocked the front door. Letting Nick go in first, Peter followed behind carrying his case and rucksack.

Inside the interior was much more modern than might have been expected from the traditional exterior.

They went into a spacious sitting room. There was furniture that was obviously expensive, and there was a big television and a rather up-market sound system.

“This is impressive,” said Nick. “I wish I had a place like this.”

“I'm only having it temporarily,” said Peter. “Just until I sort out a permanent place of my own.”

He could hardly believe his good fortune, but he thought it best to play it down in front of Nick.

“Come on,” said Nick. “Let's look around the place. Then you can take me out for a drive in your swanky car. We could go somewhere and have a beer. Then when we get back I'll have to head home.”

“Okay,” said Peter. “I'll take my stuff out of this case of yours and then we can put it in your car.”

They wandered around the house and found it to have a sitting room, a study, a toilet and a kitchen downstairs. Because there was a garage which intruded at the front of the house into the ground floor space, it meant that there was actually more usable floor space upstairs. On that floor there was a large master bedroom with an en suite bathroom, a good sized second bedroom, a small room which could either be a bedroom or a study or just a store room, and there was a house bathroom.

“Room for you to stay,” Peter said to Nick.

“Yes,” said Nick. “Or Sophie. Or your parents.”

“Yes,” said Peter. “That reminds me that I'd better find out how those three people are getting on.” He put Nick's case on the large bed in the master bedroom and took out all his things.

“Come on then,” he said. “Here, you can have your case back. Many thanks for letting me use it. Now let's go and try out my car and go and have a drink somewhere to celebrate you being able to have your apartment all to yourself again.”

Nick laughed as he grabbed his case and they headed downstairs. “You don't fancy swapping homes do you, Peter?”

Peter laughed. “Give me a chance first to find out what it's like living here.”

Later that evening, when they had returned to the house after having a couple of beers in a crowded city center bar and Nick had gone home, Peter was sitting relaxing in the sitting room. The television was on quietly but he wasn't paying much attention to it. Instead he was thinking.

He took out his mobile phone and dialed a number. After a while someone answered.

“Hi, Sophie,” Peter said. “It's me. Guess what? I've got a house and a car.” Sophie said something on the other end of the line. Peter spoke. “It's only temporarily to tide me over until I sort out my own home and transport. Apparent the house and the car belong to friends of my boss. They're abroad and they've told my boss they don't mind me having the use of them. Listen, Sophie, do you want to drive over and have a look at the place? I know it's getting a bit late, but ….” Again Sophie was obviously saying something. “Okay,” said Peter. “I'll give you the address, then I'll see you when you get here in about half an hour.”

Peter gave Sophie the address of his delightful little house, and then with a pleased look on his face he switched his phone off.

Almost exactly half an hour later the front doorbell rang and Peter went and let Sophie in. He led her into the sitting room. Sophie looked around.

“This puts my place to shame,” she said. “How much are these people charging you? It's got to be expensive in this part of the city.”

“It's free,” said Peter. The car too. But I've only got the use of the house and the car until I sort out my own home and transport.”

Sophie laughed. “I wouldn't rush if I were you.” Then she looked more serious. “Things are obviously looking up for you, Peter, but things are not so good for your parents. I phoned them. Just keeping in touch, you know. Which is more than you do. The bank have made your dad bankrupt and taken your parents' house off them. Your dad's still got his bit of money hidden away, and he and your mum were going to use it to rent a reasonable place to live. Then they realized that the bank would want to know where the money for that was coming from. So instead they've gone on the dole and the local council has put them up in a bed and breakfast place until it can find them a flat or a house to live in. Your mum and dad's idea is that they'll play poor for a year until your dad is discharged from bankruptcy and all this financial mess is over and done with, then they'll move somewhere decent and your dad will try to get some business going again.”

“They're on the dole?” said Peter incredulously. “Living in a bed and breakfast?”

“All this nonsense is only for a year,” said Sophie, “until your dad gets discharged from bankruptcy. It keeps the bank from getting suspicious and it lets him keep the money he's salvaged from this debacle.”

“Mum and dad can come and stay here,” said Peter. “I'll ring them tomorrow and talk to them.” He hesitated, then said, “Do you want to stay here tonight, Sophie? Christen the place, if you know what I mean?”

“You dirty old man!” laughed Sophie.

“I'm only three months older than you,” protested Peter.

Sophie kissed him. “If anyone else asked me for a one-night stand,” she said, “I'd say yes, but with you and me it's going to be something permanent or it's going to be nothing.”

Peter put on an innocent expression. “Couldn't you pretend I'm someone else just for one night?” he said.

Sophie looked at him through narrowed eyes. Then she laughed. Peter burst out laughing too. They hugged each other.

“Come on,” said Peter, taking Sophie by the hand. “Let me show you the rest of the house.”

“That wouldn't by any chance include your bedroom, would it?” said Sophie, adopting an innocent expression of her own.

“It just might,” said Peter, leading her out of the sitting room. “It just might.”

Chapter Nine

At work over the next couple of weeks, Peter got to see lots of different parts of the public sector, including government. One day he went with Jeffrey to a fire station.

They walked into the fire station through a side door. The red doors at the front, where the fire engines could come rushing out, were closed. Once inside, they could see the engines - four of them - lined up.

There was no one around. In the corner they could see stairs, so they made their way over to them and went quietly upstairs. There were several doors leading off the landing. One was marked 'kitchen'. There were male and female toilets and showers. Then they saw the door marked restroom.

Jeffrey went over to and quietly pushed it open. He stepped into the room. Peter followed him.

Inside there were ten firefighters in their uniforms. They were sleeping on beds, snoring gently.

“What are they doing?” asked Peter.

“Sssshhh!” said Jeffrey. “They're sleeping until it's time to collect their public sector pensions.”

“Shouldn't they be doing some work?” Peter asked in a quiet voice.

“They work on their days off from this job,” said Jeffrey. “They sleep here for two days and two nights, and then they're free for the rest of the week.” He turned around. “Come on,” he said. “Let's go. We mustn't disturb them.”

Jeffrey and Peter left the room and silently closed the door. Then they made their way downstairs and left the station.

On another day they went to a Job Center - the place where people go to register for unemployment benefit and to look for low-grade work.

They had wandered into the Job Center and introduced themselves to the security guard, saying that they had an appointment with Brendan O'Mulligan, the Job Center manager. The security man disappeared and then came back with a harassed looking man who was wearing a suit but whose tie was askew. He held out a hand to Jeffrey.

“Jeffrey Coller?” he asked?

“Yes,” said Jeffrey.

“Brendan O'Mulligan,” said Brendan.

They shook hands. Brendan turned to Peter.

“So you must be Peter Patter,” he said. “I hear you're going to be overseeing the Public Sector Inspectors who oversee us.”

They shook hands.

“Yes I am and yes I am,” said Peter with a smile.

“Come this way,” said Brendan. He led the way into the big open plan office where Job Center staff were sitting at desks and dealing with new claimants and people 'signing on' and people with queries they wanted dealt with. Brendan found an empty desk and sat down behind it.

“Take a seat,” he said, indicating the two chairs in front of the desk.

Jeffrey and Peter sat down.

Brendan turned to Peter. “Is this the first time you've been in a Job Center, Peter,” he said.

“Yes,” said Peter.

“I'm glad to hear it,” said Brendan. “Coming to these places can be very soul-destroying. That applies as much for the staff as for the unemployed people. Of course for some of the unemployed people it's irritating having to come here because they have to drag themselves away from their work.”

“But don't you have to be unemployed to claim unemployment benefit?” said Peter.

He immediately realized he sounded rather naive.

Brendan smiled at him. “For some people,” he said, “dole money is just extra free money they like to get to top up their income from their cash in hand job or their little business.”

“But surely most people on the dole are genuinely unemployed?” said Peter.

“Yes,” said Brendan, “but many people like getting money and subsidized accommodation for not working. If you're going to get the same money for not working as for working, why work?”

Over at a nearby desk a female unemployment benefits claimant suddenly started shouting at a male member of the Job Center staff who was on the other side of the desk from her. Jeffrey, Peter and Brendan turned to watch.

“Give me money” screamed the woman. “It's your duty. It's my right to have it. I've earned it.”

The male staff member put his elbows on the desk and folded his hands.

“Really?” he said. “What jobs have you had? How much tax have you paid into the system for the day when you might need to take money out of it?”

“I've never had a job,” yelled the woman. “And I don't pay no money into no system. I take other people's money out.”

“How's your job search going?” asked the staff member. “Have you found any work yet?”

“I'm too busy to work,” screamed the woman. “I'm too busy even to look for work, what with looking after my council house and being with my kids and my mates and going shopping.” She hesitated. “And all that,” she finished rather lamely.

Jeffrey, Peter and Brendan turned their attention back to their own conversation.

“Okay,” said Peter. “So some people abuse the system, but at least the system is there to protect those people who really can't work because they're physically or mentally unable to do so.”

“Ooh! My back!” said Brendan, touching his back and grimacing with pain.

“What?” said Peter, confused.

“I think I'm suffering from stress,” said Brendan, turning down the corners of his mouth and looking sad.

“What are you going on about?” said Peter.

Jeffrey just quietly saying nothing and smiling.

“I'm too depressed to work,” moaned Brendan, looking miserable. “It's the thought that I might have to work that's making me depressed.”

Peter shook his head. “You're trying to tell me something, Brendan, but I don't know what it is.”

“Peter,” said Brendan, “there are people who genuinely could never do any meaningful or useful work, but most of the people 'on the sick' could do something useful in return for money. Indeed quite a number of them are earning money one way or the other. But they like getting free money, free accommodation, even free transport. Listen. The state benefits system started off either as a way of politicians trying to buy votes with the money they'd thieved off honest profit-making workers, or it was created out of pure idealism, but the system has been being gamed by lazy and dishonest people for decades now.” He paused. “The system isn't 'fit for purpose'.”

“So what system would you put in its place?” said Peter.

“Why have a system at all?” said Brendan. “Let's have no benefits. And let's have no state-funded or state-owned accommodation. Let the state provide nothing other than the absolute basics - national defense, domestic security, essential infrastructure. Let's have minimal taxation and minimal government involvement in people's lives. Let's go back to the survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle.”

Peter looked at him. “Are you serious?” he said.

Brendan looked at Peter for several seconds. Then he laughed. “No, of course I'm not,” he said. “I'd never find a job if we didn't have all this crazy socialism and big government to provide me with employment. And what would happen to all the idle and crooked and useless people that we deal with here? Turn them into Soylent Green?”

Jeffrey smiled and stood up and turned to Peter. “Have you learned all you need to learn, Peter?”

“Peter stood up. “Yes, I think so.”

“Good,” said Jeffrey, “because it's time for lunch.” He turned to Brendan.” Many thanks for illuminating Peter, Brendan, but we have to go now.”

“Of course,” said Brendan. “I shall probably knock off for the day soon too.” He stood up and reached a hand across the desk to Peter.

They shook hands.

“Nice to have met you, Peter,” Brendan said. “Given a bit more time, I reckon you'll have a proper public sector mentality.” He winked at Peter. “Don't forget to make sure your Public Sector Inspectors understand that they need to be pragmatic, not idealistic. They can keep their idealism for their private lives. Better still, keep it for their dreams.”

“I'll bear that in mind,” said Peter. “Bye.”

Peter and Jeffrey turned.

“We can find our own way out, Brendan,” Jeffrey said over his shoulder.”

He and Peter made their way out of the Job Center.

Jeffrey leant his head towards Peter. “Of course,” he said, “we get paid with the same money that the government uses to pay the scroungers who come in here.” He laughed. “We're all taking money out of the system, except for those daft enough or unfortunate enough to be paying into it.”

On another day, in the afternoon, Jeffrey and Peter went to visit some local council offices to find out what the council did and how it was run. The council leader's name was Brian Barge. He was a plump, self-satisfied man with a permanently full stomach and a smug look on his face.

Jeffrey and Peter sat opposite him on the other side of his desk in his ornate office in the town's grand town hall. Jeffrey and Peter had taken quite a drive to get to this town, but Jeffrey felt it was important for Peter to be reminded that most of the country existed outside the capital and that the majority of people were not city people.

“So, Mr. Coller,” said Brian Barge, “did you have a good drive here to my little town? Did you manage to stop on the way and have lunch? I had an excellent lunch today. On expenses, of course, as I was entertaining the wife of one of the council's employees who is actually in your own city at the moment attending a conference.”

“We had a very good drive here, thank you, Mr. Barge,” said Jeffrey, “and yes, we managed to stop on the way at that well-known pub, The Stuffed Goose. We had a very good lunch.”

“Excellent,” said Brian Barge. He leaned forward and put his hands on his desk. “Shall we do away with the formalities, Mr. Coller?” he said. “You can call me Brian.”

“Of course, Brian,” said Jeffrey. “And you can call me Jeffrey.”

Brian looked at Peter, and then back to Jeffrey. “And your young friend is …?”

“Peter,” said Peter, speaking up for himself. “Peter Patter.”

“And you're going to be supervising the Public Sector Inspectors who come and keep an eye on us?” said Brian.

“I shall be inspecting their work to make sure that it comes up to scratch,” said Peter.

“Then make sure they always give us their seal of approval, Peter,” said Brian with a wink.

Peter smiled. “I'm sure they will, Brian,” he said. He paused, and then said, “A short time ago I met the head of the Union of Servants of the Public. His name was …”

”… Alf Barge,” said Brian with obvious satisfaction. “And yes, we are related. He's my brother.” Brian leant back in his seat and gently held the lapels of the jacket of his expensive suit. He looked up at the ceiling. “It's difficult to say which one of us has risen furthest, but we've both done well climbing up the public sector ladder to positions of power, status and good pay.” For a few seconds he looked thoughtful. Then he looked at his two visitors again and rested both his hands on his desk. He looked at Jeffrey. “So what is it that I can do for you and Peter today, Jeffrey?”

“Because Peter here is going to be the Inspector who inspects the Inspectors who inspect all the different parts of the public sector, I want him to find out what goes on in the multifarious branches of the public sector,” said Jeffrey. “I thought you, as a well respected local council leader, could tell him what goes on in a local council.”

“I can tell him what goes on in my local council,” said Brian. He looked at Peter. “What goes on in my local council is whatever I decide should go on, because I am like a king - the king of my own little empire - and that's because I control the purse strings, you see, Peter.”

“That must be very satisfying,” said Peter. “But what is the actual purpose of the council?”

“Its purpose is to provide jobs and perks and pensions for council employees,” said Brian. “Also I like to award contracts to friends of mine.”

“I really meant what is its purpose with regard to the people in your area?” said Peter.

“Oh, we do various things for them, you know” said Brian. “We try to keep them happy. Stop them grumbling.”

“What sort of things?” asked Peter.

“You'd have to ask one of my people about that,” said Brian. “But I think we do things like empty rubbish bins, maintain the roads and provide schools. There must be other stuff we do but I can't remember what it is.”

Peter nodded his head sympathetically. A great man's mind should not concern itself with trivia.

“Where does the money come from to pay for all this?” he asked Brian.

“The government takes money off people all over the country and gives some of it to us,” said Brian. “We take money off the local people. Then we borrow money. Then we try to think of more ways to get money off the local people.”

“What sort of ways have you come up with?” Peter asked.

“Lots of ways,” said Brian. “But basically we just charge them for everything we can charge them for and we fine them for everything we can fine them for.”

“But I guess,” said Peter, “that most of the money you get, however you get it, gets spent on serving the people of the district?”

“Well let's see,” said Brian thoughtfully. “A quarter of our money goes on paying pensions to people who used to work for the council. Another quarter goes on paying people who now work for the council. But yes, all the rest of the money gets spent on the ordinary people.” He paused, then added, “But of course as more of us present council employees retire, more money is going to have to be spent paying our pensions, so that means there will be less to spend on services for the local people.”

“So how are you going to deal with that?” Peter asked.

Brian shrugged his shoulders. “It won't be my problem, will it?” he said. “I'll be long retired before the system gets into really dire straits. Until then, I guess we just keep getting as much money as we can from wherever we can and we keep reducing the money we spend on providing services for the people in this area.”

“Do you feel sorry for the local people that they'll have to give you more and more money just to get fewer and fewer services?” said Peter.

“No,” said Brian.”Why should I? Anyone in the area who had any brains would either have worked for the council or they would be working for the council now. Then they'd be alright.”

Peter nodded his head. Then, as his final question, he asked, “When you retire, Brian, how would you like to be remembered by the people of this area?”

“I'd like to be remembered,” said Brian, “as someone who lined his pockets at their expense as much as possible not just before retiring, but after retiring as well.”

Jeffrey cleared his throat. “Peter,” he said. “I'm sure you've got quite a good understanding now of how a well run local council works. Do you have any more questions for Brian?”

“No, Jeffrey,” said Peter. “I think I now know as much as I need to know.”

“Excellent,” said Jeffrey. “Let's call it a day then.”

He stood up, and Peter did likewise.

Jeffrey turned to Brian. “I know you're a very busy man, Brian,” said Jeffrey, “so I'd like to thank you for managing to fit us in today. You've been very helpful, and I'm sure Peter has learnt a lot.”

“I certainly have,” said Peter.

“It's been my pleasure,” said Brian, rising to his feet. “I'm always happy to help someone who's been smart enough to come into the public sector.” He shook Jeffrey's hand. Then he turned to Peter and, as he shook his hand, he said, “Remember, Peter, God helps those who help themselves.”

“I'll remember that,” said Peter.

“Shall I show you out,” said Brian, turning back to Jeffrey, “or …?”

“No,” said Jeffrey. “We can find our own way out. We'll leave you to get on with your work.”

“Yes, I suppose I'd better do something,” said Brian, sitting down again.

Jeffrey and Peter turned and left the office and made their way out of the Town Hall. As they stepped outside, Jeffrey turned to Peter.

“Have you ever seen this great nation's parliament in action, Peter?” he said. Then he added, “I don't mean on television. I mean have you actually been inside Parliament and seen our politicians at work?”

“No,” said Peter. “I haven't.”

“You should,” said Jeffrey. “Give me a couple of days and I'll arrange it. In fact take a couple of days off work until I've arranged it. It's nice to have a break during the week every now and again. In the public sector we do it all the time. I'll put you down as being off sick.”

“Thanks, Jeffrey,” said Peter. “That's much appreciated. And I look forward to going to see our politicians and the place where they work.”

With that, they walked to where Jeffrey's sleek, luxury car was parked and they set off on the long journey back to the capital.

Chapter Ten

Jeffrey was as good as his word, and a couple of days later Peter found himself sitting with Jeffrey in an empty office in the building that housed the nation's government. He and Jeffrey were sitting in a couple of rather splendid leather armchairs. Two similar armchairs faced them a couple of meters away.

“Did you enjoy your few days off work, Peter?” Jeffrey said. “Have you settled comfortably into your new home now?”

“Yes to both of those questions,” said Peter.

“Good,” said Jeffrey. “If you ever need a break from work, just go off sick.”

“Okay,” said Peter. Then he added, “By the way, who are we meeting today?”

“A politician,” said Jeffrey, “and a very important one at that. Of course you've already met one senior politician in the form of Sir Nevile Grevile, the Minister responsible for our department. Today you're going to meet his boss.”

Just then the door of the office opened and two rather impressive men walked in. They came over to Jeffrey and Peter. Jeffrey stood up, and Peter did likewise.

“Threfton, lovely to see you,” said Jeffrey, shaking the one man's hand.

Jeffrey turned to Peter. “Peter,” he said, “this is Threfton Gunn, the Controller of the Public Purse.” He turned back to Threfton. “Threfton, this is Peter Patter. He's going to be my Public Sector Inspector Inspector.”

“Good man,” said Threfton. He shook hands with Peter. “Keep an eye on those Inspectors.”

“I will,” said Peter, not sure yet whether he should call the other man Threfton or Mr. Gunn.

Jeffrey turned his attention to the other man.

“Michael,” he said. “Good to see you.”

He and the other man shook hands.

Jeffrey turned to Peter. “Peter,” he said, “This is Michael Moneymaker. He's the Governor of the National Bank.”

Peter and Michael shook hands.

“Money must be spent wisely, Peter,” said Michael.

“I'll try to see that it is,” said Peter. His mind was actually again wondering whether Michael Moneymaker should be addressed as Mr. Moneymaker or as Michael.

“And don't worry,” said Michael. “You can call Threfton and me by our first names.”

“Thank you, Michael,” Peter said with relief. “You must be a mind reader, because how to address you both was actually what I was wondering about.”

Jeffrey and Peter sat down in their own armchairs, and Michael and Threfton sat down in the two armchairs opposite them.

“So, Peter,” said Threfton, “I understand Jeffrey wants you to find out what different sections of the public sector do, and today it's my job to enlighten you about what I, the Controller of the Public Purse, do.”

“It would certainly be a great help to me, Threfton,” said Peter.

Threfton leant back in his armchair. “Government and the public sector in general have two responsibilities - to take money off the nation's citizens and then to spend that money. Indeed to spend more than that money if possible.”

Threfton and Michael looked at each other and laughed.

Threfton turned back to Peter. “I have responsibility for seeing that all Ministries that have the power to take money off people actually do it to the maximum legal extent. I also have responsibility for seeing that all Ministries spend their allocated money within the public sector first, then give it away in the form of benefits and grants, and only then reluctantly let any leftover money leak back to the private sector profit-generators who handed over the money in the first place. Finally I have responsibility for seeing that if there is a shortfall between what the government wants to spend and what it's been possible to take from people, the government is able to borrow the money it needs to make up the shortfall.” He looked at Michael and then turned back to Peter. “But Michael will fill you in on that.”

“It all sounds quite straightforward,” said Peter.

“Actually it's a rather tricky balancing act,” said Threfton. “Of course we want to extort as much money from productive, profit-generating people as possible so that we can dole out as much money as possible to ourselves and to people whose votes we want to buy and to people whom we wish to keep quiet, no matter how useless they may be, or even if they make a negative contribution to society, but if we demand too much from the people who actually pay in to this crazy socialist Ponzi scheme of ours, then we risk alienating them and they may become increasingly reluctant to give us their money, and then the whole scheme would collapse. So you can see that we must keep both sides of the financial give-take relationship either sufficiently happy or bearably unhappy if it is to continue as it is now.”

“Yes, I see,” said Peter. “But surely the people you take money off are aware that their money is needed for vital public sector expenditure, and therefore they will wish to keep handing over their money for that reason alone.”

“Vital public sector expenditure?” said Threfton. He looked at Michael. He and Michael burst out laughing. Threfton turned back to Peter.

“The only public expenditure that is vital is that which buys votes and keeps us politicians in power. Not strictly true, of course. We also need to distribute money and services so that it keeps the ordinary people tolerably content so that they don't get it into their head to overturn the current political, financial, social and legal systems.” He paused, then went on. “Firstly,” he said, “I think you imagine people are more altruistic than they really are. Profit-generating private sector taxpayers hand over their money to us because we threaten to hurt them if they don't. Also many of them simply don't realize to what a huge extent their money is squandered and wasted and misappropriated. Secondly, with regard to public sector expenditure being vital, I'd be surprised if even ten percent of what the government spends its extorted and borrowed money on is vital to the people of this country. We in government and the public sector simply enjoy taking and spending other people's money, largely for our own benefit.”

“But imagine,” said Peter, “if the public sector spent only ten percent of the money it spends now. The country wouldn't be nearly as good a place as it is now, would it?”

“Wouldn't it?” said Threfton. “I think it would be a better place. It would be a better place. People would have to be responsible for themselves. They would have to fend for themselves. Imagine, as you suggest, that we employed in the public sector only ten percent of those we employ now. The cast off people would have to do something that other people wanted and were prepared to pay them to do in order to earn a living. Think what life would be like if we only spent on the military ten percent of what we spend now. There would be no more invasions of other countries or interfering in their affairs. Imagine if all the idle spongers used to living on welfare payments suddenly had those payments stopped. I assure you most of them would soon find work of some description. Imagine if we spent on healthcare only ten percent of what we spend now. People would either have to be able to sort out their own health or they'd just die off. We would go back to survival of the fittest. Natural selection. Which is how we got to be the dominant animal on the planet in the first place. The system we have now is unnatural in the most literal sense.” He paused. “The other side of the coin is that government wouldn't need, and indeed wouldn't be allowed, to borrow, and we would only need to take off productive people ten percent of what we take off them now.”

“So if that is such a good idea,” said Peter, “why don't we do it?”

“Because,” said Threfton, “it would make life harder and worse for those of us in, or somehow connected to, the public sector, which of course includes the government. The system is set up primarily to benefit us. Naturally we want as much as possible of 'other people's money' and government borrowed money, which it is other people's responsibility to pay back, and we want to get it not by pleasing other people so that they choose to reward us with money, but rather we want it by extorting it from people under the threat of force and the loss of money and property and liberty. It is better and easier to get money through stealing and extortion than through hoping to please people. That is how governments, and public sectors, operate and manage to exist.

“Interesting,” said Peter diplomatically. He turned to Jeffrey. “Jeffrey,” he said, “is the Governor of the National Bank here today to talk to me?”

“Indeed he is,” said Jeffrey. He turned to Michael. “Michael, if you would be so kind.”

“Hello, Peter,” said Michael amicably. “You know Threfton said that the public sector wants as much money for itself as possible and it also has to spend money doing things for people so as to keep them ….” He hesitated, thought briefly, and then said, ”… tame. Threfton also said that sometimes the government can't extort as much money from people as it needs to be able to do this?”

“Yes,” said Peter.

“Well,” Michael continued, “it's the National Bank's job to create more money and give it to the government so the government can keep spending.”

“Can you just create money?” Peter asked, revealing his naivety.

“Of course you can,” laughed Michael. “Or rather, banks can. The government tells us that it wants some money, then it creates bonds or treasuries for the amount that it wants, then we create the money they want and give it to government and they give us the bonds or treasuries that they've created. The bonds or treasuries, of course, are basically just a promise that they'll pay us back the money we've created for them, along with some interest.”

“It's that simple?” said Peter.

“Yes,” said Michael.

“And you and the government can just keep on doing this as long as you want for as much money as you want?” said Peter, slightly incredulously.

“Yes,” said Michael.

Peter shook his head. “I feel sorry for people who have to work to get money.” He thought a moment, then said, ”“So the government can never run out of money?”

“In theory,” said Michael. “We can just keep on creating as much new money as the government wants. The problem is, if we go beyond a certain limit - and we don't know where that limit is - people suddenly start thinking, “Hey! There's too much money everywhere. This stuff isn't worth anything. I'm not going to accept this junk.” When that happens, we're in trouble.”

“What happens then?” asked Peter.

“The people who own things - property, land, gold and so on - debt-free are usually okay,” said Michael. “People with secured debt where the interest rate goes up as the money is devalued probably get stripped of whatever they've given as security. A lot of people get wiped out completely and lose everything. Then the system rebalances and everything starts again with a new currency or with the existing currency revalued. It's just that assets have been transferred from those who were debtors to those who were creditors in the old system.”

Peter laughed. “That's rather put me off taking out a mortgage,” he said.

“Mortgages are for mugs,” said Michael. “I've never had one in my life.”

“Me neither,” said Threfton. “I've always paid cash for any property I've wanted.”

Jeffrey spoke. “Michael, Threfton, I think you've given Peter a clear picture of government and public sector finances. I'd like to thank you very much.”

“Our pleasure,” said Threfton.

Michael leaned towards Peter. “Neither a lender nor a borrower be, Peter,” he said.

“I shall bear that in mind,” said Peter.

The four men stood up and shook hands with one another. Then they all started walking towards the door. Threfton turned to Peter.

“Peter,” he said, “I hear you've never seen Parliament in action.”

“No, Threfton, I haven't,” said Peter.

“We must rectify that,” said Threfton. He turned to Jeffrey. “Why don't both of you come back after you've had lunch and we can show Peter the Lower House and the Upper House in action?”

“That sounds like a good idea,” said Jeffrey. “We'll see you after lunch then, Threfton.”

The four men left the office, Threfton and Michael going their way, and Jeffrey and Peter going their way.

After lunch Jeffrey and Peter met up with Threfton again and the three of them went up to the viewing gallery that looked down on the politicians speaking in the Lower House of Parliament. They sat on a long leather-covered bench at the front of the gallery. Below they could see the benches that the politicians sat on as they faced each other directly across the chamber. The front benches of the two opposing sides were about four meters apart.

Today there were few politicians in the chamber. It only really got crowded when the Prime Minister put in an appearance. Nonetheless there was still a debate going on.

A politician wearing a blue tie and sitting on the nearer of the two front benches stood up. He cleared his throat. “May I say,” he said, “to my well respected political opponent opposite that she doesn't know what she's talking about?”

He sat down, and the few politicians on his side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Directly opposite him on the front bench further away from Jeffrey, Peter and Threfton, a woman wearing a red dress stood up.

“I think,” she said, “that this House will find that it's you who don't know what you're talking about.”

She sat down, and the few politicians on her side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Blue Tie stood up. “On the contrary, madam,” he said, “I think this House will find it's you who don't know what you're talking about, and this House will also find that you don't know that you don't know what you're talking about.”

He sat down, and the politicians on his side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Red Dress stood up. “I think this House will find,” she said, “that it's you who don't know that you don't know what you're talking about.”

She sat down, and the politicians on her side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Blue Tie stood up. “Far from that being the case,” he said, “I am certain that this House will find that I know exactly what I'm talking about, and furthermore it will find that if the law we are proposing on this side of the House is enacted, this great country of ours will become greater still.”

He sat down, and the politicians on his side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Red Dress stood up. “What we know on this side of the House that is obviously not known on the other side of the House,” she said, “is that the other side of the House has presided over the ruination of this country, which once was great when it was governed by this side of the House, and that if the law that the other side of the House proposes is enacted, it will ruin this country even further.”

She sat down, and the politicians on her side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Blue Tie stood up. “No it won't,” he said.

He sat down, and the politicians on his side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Red Dress stood up. “Yes it will,” she said.

She sat down, and the politicians on her side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Blue Tie stood up. “No it won't,” he said.

He sat down, and the politicians on his side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Red Dress stood up. “Yes it will,” she said.

She sat down, and the politicians on her side of the chamber cheered loudly.

Up in the viewing gallery, Threfton leaned across to Peter,

“Have you got the hang of it, Peter?” said Threfton.

“I think so, Threfton,” said Peter.

“Good,” said Threfton, getting to his feet. “Let's go to the Upper House then and see how they operate.”

He led the way out of the Lower House viewing gallery. Peter and Jeffrey got to their feet and followed after him.

They settled down on the bench at the front of another viewing gallery.

“This is the Upper House of Parliament,” Threfton said to Peter.

They looked down on the members of the Upper House of Parliament.

“These people are much better than the people in the Lower House,” Threfton said. “Much cleverer, much more civilized, and with a wealth of experience.”

Peter looked down. All over the floor of the chamber were scattered leather armchairs, all facing in different directions. In the armchairs were people - mostly men, but with the odd woman - and everyone one of them was asleep, snoring gently, and sometimes not so gently. But there was one man who was awake. He was standing up and mumbling something, reading whatever he was saying from a sheet of paper he held in his hand.

“We'll have to be quiet so we can hear what he's saying,” said Threfton. Helpfully he added,” He's Lord Doper of New Amsterdam.”

With difficulty they listened to Lord Doper.

“And,” mumbled Lord Doper, “I would like further to inform the highly respected members of this Upper House, who have made such great sacrifices for their country, that if this law that has been put to us by the Lower House is enacted, it will bring great benefits to this country, and indeed also to this highly respected Parliament. The proposed law was suggested to the Lower House by one of our nation's great business companies that wishes to do what it wants here and not to have other business companies from what I can only call …”

Lord Doper hesitated as if he was about to say something deeply unpleasant. Then he said, ”… abroad, …”

Having made this foul utterance, he was able to continue more easily. ”… coming over here and competing with it. I'm sure all the highly respected members of this House will agree that that is very reasonable. Indeed how could we expect our companies to survive if we allowed Johnny Foreigner to come over and compete with them? It would make life quite horrid and stressful for them. And we wouldn't want that, would we?”

Lord Doper paused and looked around the chamber, but everyone was so engrossed in sleeping that it was hardly surprising that they weren't paying any attention to what he was saying.

Lord Doper looked down at his papers and continued reading.

“I can also further reassure the highly respected members of this House that the customers of the business company that proposed this law to the Lower House for enactment, and which the Lower House is now proposing to us for enactment, are not in the slightest concerned about the quality of the goods and services they receive from this business company, nor are they concerned about what they have to pay for those goods and services. They are always simply hugely grateful to get whatever goods and services are offered to them, and they will happily pay whatever prices are demanded of them for those goods and services. Finally may I say to the highly respected members of this Upper House that this business company that has proposed this law for the Lower and Upper Houses of this Parliament to consider has always been most generous to the well respected and highly respected members of this Parliament, both in terms of cash and gifts, essentially as we have always seen fit to pass the laws that it has proposed to us, and it has given assurances that if this particular law is also passed, it will continue to express its gratitude to us in a similar fashion.”

Lord Doper lifted his head and looked around the chamber. “Now,” he continued, “I have to say to the highly respected members of this House that the time has come for us to vote on whether this law will be enacted or not, so I would like a clear 'yes' or 'no' from each of you according to your decision. As is usual in this House, and in accordance with its rules, silence will be counted as a 'yes' vote. So, who wishes to vote 'yes' for this law to be enacted?”

There was absolute silence in the chamber, other than the sound of snoring, of course.

Lord Doper nodded his head. “Then,” he said, “that is clearly a unanimous 'yes' vote.” He paused. “I am therefore delighted to inform this house that this law is now enacted.”

Threfton leaned across to Peter. “Got the hang of it, Peter?”

“I think so, Threfton,” said Peter.

“Good,” said Threfton, getting to his feet. “Let's go and have a few drinks in one of the politicians' bars here in the Parliament building. The drinks are free for us politicians and our friends. I guess that's just taxpayers showing us how grateful they are for what we do for them.”

He headed off out of the viewing gallery, and Jeffrey and Peter got to their feet and followed after him.

It had been a pleasant and informative day, and a few free drinks would round it off nicely.

Chapter Eleven

That same day, at breakfast time, in stark contrast to the splendid Parliament building in which Peter found himself, his parents David and Margaret found themselves sitting at a plastic-topped table in the dining room of a grotty bed and breakfast place. There was a din from the people at the other tables in the room, and from the children who were noisily running around, playing and fighting with each other.

David and Margaret looked at each other with sadness in their eyes.

David leaned towards his wife. “I can't believe they found that bank account I'd hidden our money in,” he whispered. “I should have known that all financial information is available to those in authority these days.” He sighed. “Foolish of me,” he said. “I should have put the money in cash and hidden it somewhere.”

Margaret rested a hand on one of his. “It's too late for regrets,” she said consolingly. “We just have to cope as best we can.”

“But we have nothing,” said David. “Nothing, except our furniture and personal possessions which I put in storage, and that is only paid for for one year. What happens after that? I suppose we lose all of that as well. That's if my trustees in bankruptcy don't find it and seize it first.”

“We may be able to sell off some of our antique furniture occasionally to get some money,” said Margaret. She stroked his hand. “Don't worry,” she said. “We'll get by. We always have done in the past.”

“I hope you're right,” said David doubtfully. “But this time might be different.”

“Perhaps we should get in touch with Peter,” said Margaret. “He might be able to help us.”

David shook his head. “No,” he said. “Whether things are going well for him or badly, I don't want us to be a burden on him and drag him down. In a way he's only just starting his life. He needs to get on with it without having us involved in it.”

“But not only may he be able to help us, he may be happy to help us,” said Margaret.

David shook his head again. “I don't care. I want him to make a life for himself without us.”

Margaret nodded her head understandingly. “I understand, dear,” she said.

They turned their heads and looked at the other people in the room. Apart from an old man in dirty clothes, who, drunk at nine in the morning, was nursing a can of strong beer while his head nodded as, bowed, it almost rested on the table he was at, all the others were young people with their various children. The females were teenagers or in their early twenties at most. Two of the women, who already had children, were pregnant, but even so they were smoking and drinking. The young men who were sitting with the women may or may not have been the women's partners, they may or may not have been the fathers of the women's children, but they were certainly on very friendly terms with the women. Almost everyone was smoking, and all of them were drinking. What they drank was either strong lager or white cider. Everyone had tattoos on them, except of course for the kids who were running around shouting, and the babies who lay either screaming or sleeping in their mothers' arms.

Suddenly a fat woman in an apron appeared next to David and Margaret and put down on the table in front of them two large plates with huge cooked breakfasts on them. This was the food that all the others in the room had in front of them too, although while some scoffed the food, others just picked at it and left most of it on the plate.

“There you are, loves,” said the fat woman. “Get that down you. It'll put some meat on them skinny bones of yours.” She laughed and walked away and went out of the room.

David and Margaret picked up their knives and forks and began slowly to eat their breakfasts.

A heavily tattooed young man on the other side of the room called over to them.

“You alright, you two? Enjoying it at this place? It's great, isn't it? Free accommodation, free food, good company. Couldn't be better.”

David looked at the shaven-headed, tattooed creature as it grinned and drank from a can of lager.

“It's …” He wasn't sure what to say. Then he said, ”… very pleasant.”

The young man's woman friend stopped playing with the baby in her arms and looked over at David and Margaret. “I love these big breakfasts,” she said. And judging by her size, their was no reason to doubt her. “But then I need plenty of food because I'm eating for two.” She put her cigarette in an ashtray and patted her stomach to emphasize the point. Then she took the can of lager off the young man, took a swig from it and handed it back to him.

Margaret spoke up, feigning delight. “Oh, how wonderful,” she said. “You're pregnant. We need more children in the world.”

“Yes,” said the young woman, “to look after us when we get old.”

“I thought it was the state's job to do that,” the young man said to her. He turned back to David and Margaret. “Are you two waiting for the local council to find you somewhere permanent to live? We are. We got chucked out of our last place, so they've got to find us another place.”

“Yes,” said Margaret. “We're hoping they'll find us somewhere peaceful to live.”

“I wouldn't bank on them finding you anywhere peaceful,” the young man said with a laugh. “Most of the council estates round here are pretty lively.” He turned to the young woman. “But we like it like that, don't we, lover?”

“Yeah,” she said, picking up her cigarette and starting to puff away on it again. “We like a bit of life, don't we? It makes it more interesting for our three kids.” She patted her tummy again. “I mean four.”

The young man turned back to David and Margaret. “Well,” he said, “I hope they find you somewhere decent to live. At your ages you ought to have your own home.” He picked up his can of lager. “Do you fancy some beer? I got another four cans down here.” He nodded at a bag down by his feet.

“No,” said David, “but thank you anyway.”

“It's a bit early in the day for us,” said Margaret, smiling pleasantly.

“Maybe later then,” said the young man. He waved a packet of cigarettes at them. “Cigarette?” he said.

“Thank you, but no thanks,” said Margaret. “Neither of us smokes.”

“Please yourself,” said the young man, putting the packet back down on the table and starting to drink again from his can of lager.”

David and Margaret went back to picking at their big, greasy breakfasts.

Chapter Twelve

Jeffrey continued educating Peter in the mysterious ways of the public sector. One morning they went to visit one of the public sector's lesser known departments, and Peter found himself sitting alongside Jeffrey in a tiny, dingy little office, facing a bored, tired looking man who sat opposite them on the other side of a scruffy little desk.

Jeffrey turned to Peter. “This, Peter,” said Jeffrey, “is one of the most important departments in the public sector.” He inclined his head towards the man sitting at the desk. “Old Bob here runs it all by himself.”

Jeffrey turned to the man. “Don't you, Bob?”

“Yes,” said Bob wearily. “It's just me. I'm all alone here.”

“But you love your job, don't you, Bob?”

“It's a job,” said Bob.

“Tell Peter what you do,” said Jeffrey.

Bob forced himself to sit upright. “This,” he said, “is the Public Sector Department Elimination Department, and it does what it says on the tin. It looks for departments in the public sector that can be done away with.”

“Brilliant!” said Peter. “That fits in with our department's mandate to make the public sector more efficient and reduce costs.”

“You found a department to get rid of last year, didn't you, Bob?” said Jeffrey.

“Not last year,” said Bob.

“The year before, then?” said Jeffrey.

“Not the year before,” said Bob.

“Well, the main thing is that you're looking,” Jeffrey said reassuringly. He turned to Peter. “Have you got any questions for Bob, Peter?”

“No,” said Peter, “but I'd like to say that I think Bob is running a very worthwhile department. Taxpayers will be very pleased to know that it exists.”

“Thank you,” said Bob.

“And they'd be even more pleased to know that it doesn't cost much to run,” said Jeffrey. He stood up. “Come on, Peter, let's go and have lunch. We'll make it a long one. We've got another public sector department to visit this afternoon, but it isn't far from here, so we don't have to do any travelling.”

Peter stood up, and he and Jeffrey left the office, leaving Bob sitting silently and forlornly at his desk.

After a wonderful lunch, which Jeffrey put on his public sector credit card, Peter and Jeffrey wandered along to their next appointment.

“This is the same building we were in this morning,” said Peter, as they entered the building where they now had the afternoon's appointment.

“Indeed it is,” smiled Jeffrey, “but we're going to a completely different office and a completely different department.”

They went up in the lift and got out at the same floor that they had got out at that morning. They wandered along the same corridor they had wandered along that morning, but they went straight past the tatty wooden door of the office from which old Bob ran the Public Sector Department Elimination Department. Continuing along the corridor, Jeffrey stopped at the end. In front of him and Peter was a pair of impressive frosted glass doors. Behind them could be seen the shadows of figures busily moving to and fro. On the doors, in bold gilt lettering, it said 'The Public Sector Department Creation Department'.

Jeffrey pressed a buzzer to one side of the doors. A brisk voice crackled back.

“Yes? Who is it? What do you want? Have you got an appointment?”

Jeffrey leant towards the intercom. “Bob, it's Jeffrey and Peter again. Remember? We have an appointment.”

“Ah, yes,” came the voice. “Of course.”

The intercom went silent and the shadow of a figure approached the doors from the other side. One of the doors opened, and there stood Bob.

But he was a new man.

“Yo! Jeffrey!” he said. “Peter! Come in!”

Jeffrey and Peter entered the department. Bob shook them both vigorously by the hand.

“Welcome to my little empire,” he said, waving his head expansively around and drawing attention to the huge open plan office in which they were standing. Hordes of workers were buzzing around energetically, seemingly almost running to get from one workstation to another.

The place was throbbing with energy.

“Let's go and sit down,” said Bob, “and you can ask me all the questions you want.

Jeffrey and Peter followed Bob as he weaved his way between the department's workers to a desk that was larger than everyone else's and therefore was presumably his. He grabbed a couple of small chairs from another desk and placed them at the front of the desk. He himself went behind the desk.

“Sit down, gents,” he said, indicating the chairs he had placed in front of the desk. He sat down in his own chair, which was a big, swiveling, tilting, leather, executive affair.

He clapped his hands together, threw his head back and laughed. “Welcome to this creative powerhouse of the public sector,” he laughed, as Jeffrey and Peter sat down in their chairs.

“This is a bit different from your other department,” said Peter.

“This department is my pride and joy, my baby,” said Bob. He leaned forward over his desk. “It's an absolutely vital part of the public sector, much more so than the other department. The other department is essentially negative, destructive. This department is positive, creative. It adds something to the public sector.”

“What exactly does it add?” asked Peter.

“It adds new departments, of course,” said Bob. He laughed and leaned back in his chair. That's why it's called the Public Sector Department Creation Department. It creates new public sector departments.”

“This morning,” said Peter, “in your other department, you said that you hadn't been able to eliminate any public sector departments this year or last year. Have you had more luck in creating new public sector departments with this department this year.”

Bob laughed again. He really was in a good mood. “Are you kidding, peter?” he said. “Just yesterday we came up with six new departments to create.” He put his hands behind his head. “How good is that, eh?”

“Very good,” said Peter. “And are some of the departments going to be more important than others?”

“All public sector departments are important, Peter,” said Bob. “In fact they're all vital. That's because they create employment for public sector workers.”

“And that's obviously a good thing,” said Peter, “isn't it?”

“Of course it is,” said Bob. “You don't want to see people like these …,” Bob waved a hand around to inclusively indicate all the people in the office, ”… unemployed, do you?”

“No way, Bob,” said Peter. “In fact I'd like to see all people employed in the public sector.”

“Good man, Peter,” said Bob. “You're my sort of idealist.”

“What were the departments you created yesterday?” Peter asked.

“Oh, I don't remember,” said Bob. His brow furrowed. “Different ones doing different things, I would imagine. Or if they're doing the same things as other departments, they're doing them in slightly different ways. Or if they're not, perhaps they're backing up some other department. Anyway who cares?” Bob began to look slightly irritated. “The important thing is that those new departments are going to be created and they'll provide jobs for more public sector workers.”

Jeffrey spoke up. “You're doing excellent work, Bob,” he said. “If only taxpayers were more aware of it.”

He turned to Peter. “Peter,” he said, “unless you've got any more questions, I think it's time for us to go. I've got a round of golf booked for three o'clock.” He paused, trying to remember something. It suddenly came to him. “Don't forget,” he went on, “that tomorrow it's Sir Nevile Grevile's wedding anniversary party at his house in the country. I gave you the address and phone number, didn't I?”

“Yes,” said Peter.

Jeffrey turned to Bob. “Many thanks for explaining to Peter what this wonderful department of yours does, Bob,” he said. He hesitated. “And your other department too. Both of them are doing vital work.”

“My pleasure,” said Bob. “But you'll realize that I feel I'm making a bigger contribution to society with this department, which makes the public sector bigger, than with the other department, which aims to shrink it.”

Jeffrey stood up. “I quite understand,” said Jeffrey. “If I were being pulled both ways like you, I would feel the same.”

Peter stood up.

“The public sector can never be too big,” said Bob.

“Absolutely,” said Jeffrey.

“Too true,” said Peter.

“Now,” said Jeffrey. “We must dash. There's golf to be played.”

“I'll show you out,” said Bob.

He got up and escorted Jeffrey and Peter to the double glazed doors at the entrance to the department. He opened one of the doors. Jeffrey shook hands with him.

“So long as we have people like you on our side,” said Jeffrey, “we in the public sector will be safe.”

“There can never be too many of us,” said Bob. He shook Peter's hand. “Remember, Peter,” he said, “you're one of us. We must always strive to recruit other like-minded souls into our tight-knit family.”

“I'll keep my eye open for potential recruits,” said Peter earnestly.

He and Jeffrey stepped through the doorway and into the corridor.

“Farewell, comrades,” said Bob. And he closed the door.

Jeffrey and Peter started walking down the corridor towards the lift.

“He,” said Jeffrey, “is a man with a mission, and he won't cease until every adult in the country is either in or dependent upon the public sector.” He looked at Peter. “Are you looking forward to Sir Nevile Grevile's party tomorrow?”

“Yes,” said Peter. “It'll be nice to see him again.”

“And not just him,” said Jeffrey with a smile. “I'm sure you'll meet some other interesting people there too.”

An hour later, at just after three in the afternoon, Jeffrey was out on the links playing golf, and Peter was at home, dozing on the sofa, having been given permission by Jeffrey to knock off early.

He certainly wasn't going to die of overwork.

Chapter Thirteen

The next day Peter pulled up outside Sir Nevile Grevile's country house in his government-provided black Mercedes car. The house was as grand and impressive as the one that Peter's parents had owned until recently.

Peter parked the car amongst all the other impressive vehicles that were lined up around the mansion. By their standards, his was almost down-market. He stepped out of his car, didn't bother to lock it, and walked over to the open front door of the house. There, after his name had been checked, he was ushered inside by a doorman.

In the hall of the house there were groups of wealthy-looking, important-looking people chatting to one another. Peter spotted Jeffrey and chatting to Sir Nevile and walked over to the two men.

“Hello, Jeffrey, Sir Nevile,” said Peter.

“Peter,” said Jeffrey.

“Peter,” said Sir Nevile, “we were just talking about you. Apparently you're coming along well and getting a real understanding of what the public sector is all about.”

“I think I'm getting to grips with it, Sir Nevile,” said Peter. “Or coming to terms with it, you might say.”

Jeffrey smiled at Sir Nevile. “I think he's naturally one of us, Sir Nevile,” he said.

“Excellent,” said Sir Nevile. “That's what we want. Another member of our little family, you might say.” He laughed. “Except that it's not so little, of course.”

Just then an attractive young woman came over. She had that look of confidence in her eyes that people from privileged backgrounds have. She was about the same age as Peter.

“Hello, daddy,” she said to Sir Nevile.” Do you want me to fetch you another drink?”

“No, thanks, Issie darling,” said Sir Nevile. “I'm fine at the moment. You know Jeffrey, of course. After all, officially he is your boss.”

Jeffrey, Issie and Sir Nevile laughed, but Peter wasn't yet in a position to understand why.

“And this,” said Sir Nevile, indicating Peter, “is his protégée, Peter Patter.”

Issie held out her hand and shook hands with Peter. “How lovely, Peter,” she said. “No one's ever made me their protégée. It must be … a very pleasing position to be in. I'm Issie. Actually I'm Isabel, but everyone calls me Issie.”

“Pleased to meet you, Issie,” said Peter. And he meant it.

Sir Nevile spoke to Issie. “Peter's soon going to be the Public Sector Inspector Inspector in Jeffrey's department. He'll be keeping an eye on all the Public Sector Inspectors.”

Issie looked at Peter rather coyly. “So you're going to be keeping an eye on me then, Peter?” she said. “I suppose I'd better be nice to you.”

“I don't remember seeing you in any of the department's offices,” said Peter.

“Oh, I'm easy to miss,” said Issie lightly.

Jeffrey looked admiringly at Issie and then turned to Sir Nevile. “Sir Nevile,” he said, “don't you think it would be a good idea if Issie and Peter went off and had a little talk together?”

“I think that would be a very good idea, Jeffrey,” said Sir Nevile. He looked at his daughter. “Issie,” he said, “why don't you and Peter go and get to know each other better? Jeffrey and I want to have a talk too.”

“OK daddy,” said Issie. She took Peter by the arm and led him away from her dad and Jeffrey. Peter looked back at the two men. They were talking conspiratorially together. Realizing he was watching them, they both turned and looked at him and smiled. Peter smiled back, and turned his attention to Issie again. When they were out of earshot of the others, she stopped.

Peter looked at her. “I still don't understand why I haven't noticed you at the department's offices,” he said. “I thought I knew everyone there now. At least I'm on nodding terms with everyone. And I'm sure if I'd seen you I wouldn't have forgotten you.”

Issie looked at him the way she might look at a child. “Listen, Peter,” she said, “you're one of us, aren't you? You must be, otherwise daddy and Jeffrey wouldn't like you. Haven't you guessed about me yet?”

“Guessed what?” said Peter.

“That I work in your department,” said Issie, “but I don't work in your department. Daddy got Jeffrey to give me a job in his department so that I'd have an income, but I've never had to go there and do any work.” She paused. “We all need an income, don't we, Peter?” she said, looking at him.

“Yes, we do,” said Peter. He looked at her, and then said, “I wish I had a job like yours.”

Issie put her arms round his neck. “I knew you'd understand,” she said. She lowered her arms. “Give me your phone,” she said.

Peter took out his mobile phone and gave it to her. She dialed a number on it. A second or two later, her phone rang. She took it out her pocket and ended the call. She gave Peter his phone back.

“Save my number in your contacts list,” she said. “I'll do the same with your number on my phone.”

She saved Peter's number, and Peter did the same with her number.

“Now,” she said,” taking his arm, “let me introduce you to some people here. You might find some of them interesting. Maybe even useful.”

With that, she led him into the midst of the party guests.

Chapter Fourteen

A few days after the party at Sir Nevile's country house, Peter got called into Jeffrey's office. When he entered, he found Jeffrey sitting at his desk. On the other side of the desk sat Helga. Jeffrey and Helga were laughing about something.

Helga turned and looked at Peter. She had a satisfied, rather strange smile on her face.

“Peter.” said Jeffrey. “Come in. Sit down.”

Peter sat down in a chair next to Helga.

“I've got a busy day ahead of me today, Peter,” said Jeffrey.”In fact I've got a few busy days ahead of me. Changes are afoot. So today Helga will show you a couple of new public sector departments.

Peter looked at Helga, and she looked back at him with that same odd smile, as if she knew something that it would be better for Peter if she didn't know it.

“Okay, Jeffrey” said Peter, for want of anything else to say.

“Actually,” said Jeffrey, “I was thinking anyway that it would do the two of you good to spend some time together. I'm sure in future, because of your respective roles, you'll be dealing with each other quite a lot. So off you go, the two of you.” He turned to Helga. “You know the itinerary for today, don't you, Helga?”

“Yes, Jeffrey,” she said. “I've got everything mapped out.” She looked at Peter. “I know what I'm going to be doing with Peter.”

The way she said it made it almost sound like a threat.

“That's what I like to hear, Helga,” said Jeffrey. “Off you go then.”

Helga stood up. “Come on, Peter,” she said.

Peter stood up and wordlessly followed her out of Jeffrey's office.

A couple of hours later, Helga and Peter entered a rather different office. The furniture in it was elegant and antique. As he and Helga were ushered in by a secretary, Peter took in his classy surroundings before registering the equally classy, rather elegant and distinguished-looking man who sat behind a large and impressive desk.

“Helga Sprott and Peter Patter to see you, Mr. Bentinck,” said the secretary, immediately withdrawing from the office and closing the door.

Mr. Bentinck got up and came round to Peter and Helga's side of the desk and shook hands with them.

“Do sit down, both of you,” he said, indicating a couple of comfortable-looking leather armchairs that had been positioned facing the desk. He went back round to his side of the desk and sat down again, and Peter and Helga sat down in the armchairs.

“Your director, Mr. Coller, has told me what your visit is about,” he said to them. He looked at Peter. “Apparently you, Mr. Patter, are destined soon to fulfill a new role, that of Public Sector Inspector Inspector, so you need to know what the various departments in the public sector do, including mine, so that you can check that your department's inspectors are inspecting us properly.”

“That's right, sir,” said Peter, feeling that this man deserved a degree of formal respect.

“Oh please call me Mr. Bentinck,” said Mr. Bentinck. “We like to be quite informal in this department.” He turned to Helga. “And you, Miss Sprott, as your department's most experienced Public Sector Inspector, are clearly a person well suited to guiding Mr. Patter around the labyrinthine maze that is the public sector.”

“I like to think I have a good overall knowledge of the public sector, Mr. Bentinck,” said Helga.

Mr. Bentinck clasped his hands together on the desk in front of him. “So,” he said, “I must tell Mr. Patter here what my department does.” He looked at Peter. “This,” he said, “is the Department for Foreign Financial Assistance. Basically we give money - this country's taxpayers' money - to other countries.”

He went silent.

“After a lengthy pause, Peter said questioningly, “And the reasons why we do that, Mr. Bentinck?”

“Because,” said Mr. Bentinck, “it makes our Prime Minister look good when he goes to meet foreign leaders. Also it helps give the impression that we are a rich nation, rather than one that is up to its ears in debt. When we give money to foreign countries the message we are trying to convey is, 'we're richer than you, so we're condescending to help you financially.' It's a nice thing to be able to do. The Prime Minster loves doing it. I love doing it. And at the end of the day it's not our own personal money that we're throwing around. It's other people's.”

“But if our country is up to its ears in debt, shouldn't we be trying to spend less money?” said Peter.

Mr. Bentinck looked at Peter almost with surprise. “When a country is up to its ears in debt, Mr. Patter,” he said, “a little more expenditure is hardly of any great significance, is it?”

“I suppose not,” said Peter. He thought awhile, and then said, “Do we as a country get anything in return for our generosity?”

“We like to think we do,” said Mr. Bentinck. “When we give our money to another country it usually disappears into the pockets of the people at the top, but they may then use their citizens' money to buy things from us. Guns and gallows, that sort of thing. Or they may look favorably on one of our country's enterprises when it seeks to get involved in some venture on their territory.”

“Don't you object to the money we give to other countries disappearing into the pockets of the people at the top of those countries?” Peter asked.

“Why should I?” said Mr. Bentinck, frowning slightly. “It makes no difference to me or anyone else where the money goes after it's left our hands. The cost to us is the same regardless of where it ends up.”

“But,” said Peter, “I thought we always said to the people here in our own country that we gave money to help ordinary people who are poor or who have been caught up in a famine or some natural disaster?”

“Of course we do,” said Mr. Bentinck. “That's to make our money-giving more palatable to the ordinary people in this country of ours. We've got to please the people, Mr. Patter. That's democracy. Votes are bought not just with cash but also with pleasing words.”

The room went silent. Then Helga broke the silence.

“Have you got any more questions for Mr. Bentinck, Peter?” she said.

“No,” said Peter. “I don't think so.”

“Right,” said Helga. She stood up and turned to Mr. Bentinck. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Bentinck.”

Mr. Bentinck smiled. “My pleasure” he said. “Are you visiting any other public sector departments today?”

“A prison,” said Helga, “this afternoon.”

“That,” said Mr. Bentinck, “is almost beyond the call of duty. Watch your back while you're in there.”

Peter stood up.

Mr. Bentinck spoke into an intercom on his desk. “Can you show Miss Sprott and Mr. Patter out, please?” he said into it.

He stood up. The secretary who had showed Peter and Helga into the office now came in and held the door open.

“I hope the rest of your day goes well,” Mr. Bentinck said to Peter and Helga.

“Thank you,” they both said.

They left the office and the secretary closed the door after them and led them out of the department, leaving Mr. Bentinck to his pleasant existence of deciding to which countries and individuals his debt-ridden nation's money should be given.

After a meager lunch that wouldn't even have satisfied an ascetic, but which might well have satisfied a tramp if only because of the cheap and dreary establishment in which it was eaten, Helga and Peter drove to the prison which they had an appointment to look around that afternoon.

When they got there, they were let in and taken to the governor's office. The governor greeted them warmly, and then took them on a walk around the prison.

Peter was impressed by the serious security.

“So, Peter,” said Governor Mitchell as they walked along a corridor with a guard going on ahead of them, “is this your first time in jail?”

“I believe so,” Peter said with a smile.

Governor Mitchell smiled back. “Actually I know it is,” he said. “At least in this country. I checked up on you on our national prison database.”

Helga chipped in. “Oh, Peter!” she said. “I'm so disappointed. I was rather hoping that you had a colorful past.”

“I don't think you'll be able to dig up any dirt on me, Helga,” said Peter.

“No,” said Helga, “but perhaps I'll be able to dig up irrelevance or incompetence or inappropriateness.”

“Now now, you two!” Governor Mitchell laughed. “Concentrate on the task in hand.” He looked at Helga. “Peter here is supposed to be getting a taste of what our country's prisons are like and what goes on in them.”

Helga nodded her head in reluctant agreement.

The guard ahead of them unlocked a sturdy door and let the three of them into a large room. Once they were in, the guard followed after them, locking the door behind himself. In the room there were tough-looking guards milling around while even tougher-looking prisoners lay back in armchairs or sat crouched over tables as they read comics or played on computers and tablets and consoles, or simply dozed.

They looked relaxed and content.

Helga, Peter and Governor Mitchell walked through the room.

Governor Mitchell turned to his two guests. “We like to keep our customers happy,” he said with a smile.

“Customers?” said Peter.

“Yes,” said Governor Mitchell. “We see the inmates of this fine establishment of ours - it's a private prison of course - as being customers of ours who have paid for their stay here with their crimes.”

“I didn't realize this was a private prison,” said Peter. “In that case it isn't really in the public sector.” He turned to Olga, and then back to Governor Mitchell. “So why am I looking at it?”

“Because,” said Governor Mitchell, “it's paid for with public money. Taxpayers' money. A lot of things are technically not in the public sector because they've been made the responsibility of private enterprise, but they're still paid for with public money.”

Helga spoke up. “Our department, Peter,” she said, “has to inspect everything that is paid for with public money.”

“Okay,” said Peter. “Now I understand.” He looked around. “This place looks more like a hotel to me than my idea of a prison,” he said.

“We want it to be a warm and welcoming place for our clientele,” said Governor Mitchell. “We want prisoners to enjoy their stay with us. We want them to feel that if it should ever be necessary for them to return here, it would be something to look forward to, not to be dreaded.”

“But surely that's just encouraging them to do things that will get them back here?” said Peter.

“That's what we want,” said Governor Mitchell, smiling. “We're a business, Peter. We want as many customers as possible, and we want repeat business if we can get it.”

“So you want as many people in prison as possible,” said Peter, “and you want those prisoners when they're released to keep on offending?”

“That's right,” said Governor Mitchell.

“I thought prison was supposed to be a deterrent,” said Peter. “I thought it was supposed to be such a horrid experience that law-breakers got scared off from ever breaking the law again.”

“You're a hundred years behind the times, Peter,” said Governor Mitchell. “Everything is about socialist lovey-doveyness now. And spending lots of taxpayers' money, of course. Also we mustn't forget people's human rights. Everyone has rights now, Peter, unfortunately without any matching responsibilities. Everyone has the right to get whatever they want, provided for them at other people's expense. So we mustn't be horrid to anyone, Peter, no matter how bad or worthless they are.” He paused, and then said, “Have you two had lunch, by the way?”

“Yes,” said Helga. “We had lunch in a cafe on our way here.”

“Shame,” said Governor Mitchell. “Our restaurant here is superb. We have a particularly brilliant head chef. And our maitre d' is excellent, as are our waiters.” He thought for a moment, and then said, “Would you like to see our tennis courts? Or our swimming pool? Or our indoor football pitch?”

Peter let out a sigh. “You know, Governor Mitchell, I almost wish I could come and live here.”

Helga looked at Peter through narrowed eyes. “Jeffrey tells me the state is already providing you with somewhere to live, Peter,” she said. And then added, “For free.”

“So he told you, did he?” said Peter. “Yes, I've been provided with a house, and it's very nice.”

“So I hear,” said Helga. “But surely with your current salary as a Public Sector Inspector you should be able to afford a place of your own. I have to, and so co all the other inspectors.”

“Obviously Jeffrey thinks it appropriate to give me special treatment,” said Peter.

Governor Mitchell cleared his throat. “Let's carry on with the tour, shall we?” he said. “I'm really very proud of this place and I want you to see all of it so you'll appreciate what a truly wonderful facility it is.”

“Yes, let's do that,” said Helga. “Then Peter and I must drive back to the office. In Peter's lovely Mercedes.” She smiled sharply at Peter. “Or should I say the taxpayers' lovely Mercedes, Peter?” she said. She shook her head slowly. “You really are naturally suited to being in the public sector, aren't you? You've really taken to it like a duck to water.”

“I'm endeavoring to fit in,” said Peter with a smile. “Can I help it if Jeffrey feels inclined to help me out?”

“You could always try saying no to his offers of help,” said Helga. She looked at Peter for several seconds, and then said mysteriously, “Let's see how much he'll help you out in the future, shall we?”

“What's that supposed to mean?” said Peter.

Governor Mitchell interrupted. “Come on you two,” he said. “You can save all this sort of thing for later. I want to show you what our prison cells are like these days. They're lovely and comfy with all mod cons.”

He went on ahead of Peter and Helga. The guard went briskly in front of all three of them and unlocked the door that let them out of the room.

On the way back to the office in Peter's Mercedes, Peter and Helga sat in silence. Peter drove steadily and patiently along with the rather heavy traffic. Helga looked out through her window, seemingly lost in thought.

Suddenly she turned to Peter and said, “A lovely free car. A lovely free house. For someone who was having to doss on their friend's sofa a short while ago, your luck has certainly changed quickly.”

“Who said I was sleeping on a friend's sofa?” said Peter calmly.

“I get on quite well with your old school friend Nick Jenks,” said Helga.”But that's hardly surprising, is it, considering we've both worked in the same office for so many years? He likes chatting to me.” She paused. Then she said, “But it seems to me that he's being a bit secretive about you. However, he did let slip that you came back from abroad and asked to stay at his place because you had nowhere else to stay.”

“Actually” said Peter, “I could have stayed with another friend of mine. She actually asked me to stay with her.”

“What I meant,” said Helga, “was that you had no place of your own to stay at. That's hardly the sign of a successful person, or even a conventional one, is it?”

Peter didn't answer.

Helga looked out of her window again. Then she turned back to Peter. “I don't know,” she said, “how you managed to get into the public sector with such brilliant exam results and assessment results, and with an apparent past that obviously impressed Jeffrey hugely, but I shall find out. One thing I can tell you is that I've weighed you up and it's obvious to me that you don't deserve the good fortune that's come your way. Indeed you don't deserve to be in the public sector at all, getting all that you're getting at the taxpayer's expense.”

She looked hard at Peter, but he didn't turn to meet her gaze, instead focusing his eyes dead ahead.

Eventually Helga said, “When I do find out the truth about you, Peter, I shall make sure your good fortune comes to an end.”

“I'm sure you will,” said Peter, with a forced smile. “Or rather I'm sure you would, if you had the power to affect my employment, and my pay and perks.” He turned and looked at her. “But,” he said, “you don't.”

“Don't I?” said Helga.

Peter looked ahead again. “No,” he said.

“Won't I?” said Helga.

There was silence in the car.

Helga turned and looked out of her window, and this time there was a smile on her face.

Chapter Fifteen

One morning a short while later, Jeffrey was sitting at his desk in his office looking through some papers. There was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” said Jeffrey.

The door opened and Peter came in.

“Morning, Jeffrey,” said Peter.

“Ah, Peter,” said Jeffrey. “Just the man. Sit down. There's some paperwork I want to go through with you.”

Peter sat down in one of the two chairs facing Jeffrey's desk.

Jeffrey looked at him. “I won't beat about the bush, Peter,” he said. “Subject to you agreeing and signing the papers, I am now making you this department's Public Sector Inspector Inspector.”

Peter smiled. Indeed he almost grinned. “Jeffrey, that is absolutely wonderful,” he said. “I didn't expect it to happen this quickly.”

Admittedly you haven't seen all the various departments that make up the public sector yet,” said Jeffrey, “but I can tell from what I've seen so far that you're definitely the right man for the job.”

He slid some papers across the desk to Peter.

“Read through those,” he said. “If everything is to your liking, sign in the places where I've penciled an 'x'. I'll countersign the papers.” He paused, then said, “And that will be it. You will be in your new job.”

There was silence in the room as Peter quickly scanned through the papers.

“Everything looks fine,” he said eventually. “Indeed more than fine.”

“Good,” said Jeffrey. He pushed an expensive-looking pen across the desk. “Let's get them signed then.”

Peter went through the papers, signing them where necessary, and then passed them, and the pen, back to Jeffrey. Jeffrey checked through them and then countersigned the papers. Gathering them together, he put his pen away in a pocket and then reached out across the table. He and Peter shook hands.

“Congratulations, Peter,” said Jeffrey. “You are now the one and only Public Sector Inspector Inspector in the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction.”

“I'm proud, pleased and honored, Jeffrey,” said Peter. “I shall do my utmost to discharge my duties to the best of my ability.”

“I'm sure you will, Peter,” said Jeffrey. “I'm sure you will.” He thought briefly, then said, “I'm going to call all the department's inspectors together tomorrow morning at ten o'clock and announce to them your promotion to this new post. I may make one or two other announcements as well. By the way, did you notice your pay grade when you looked through these papers?”

“Yes,” said Peter, “I did, but I don't actually know what salary that is in cold hard cash.”

Jeffrey took a piece of paper out of a drawer and slid it across the desk to Peter. He pointed at a particular line that was highlighted out of all the lines of figures on it. “That's your new pay grade,” he said. “It's only one level below mine, by the way.”

Peter picked up the sheet of paper and looked at the figure mentioned in the highlighted line. He audibly drew in a breath. “That,” he said, “is a pretty hefty salary.” He looked up at Jeffrey. “I'm rather overwhelmed,” he said, passing the paper back to Jeffrey.

Jeffrey smiled. “You'll soon get used to it,” he said, putting the sheet back in the drawer. “Remember Parkinson's second law - expenditure rises to meet income.”

Just then there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” said Jeffrey.

The door opened, and Helga came in.

Jeffrey looked at his watch. “Absolutely on time, Helga,” he said.

Helga smiled. “You know I'm always punctual, Jeffrey,” she said.

“Indeed,” Jeffrey smiled back. He indicated Peter. “I have some wonderful news for you, Helga. I've just made Peter this department's Public Sector Inspector Inspector. He will be keeping an eye on all your inspectors.”

Peter looked rather smugly pleased, but he was also slightly confused by Jeffrey's use of the words 'your inspectors' to Helga.

Helga smiled warmly at Peter. “Congratulations, Peter,” she said. “I'm very pleased for you.”

Peter felt even more confused. This was hardly the sort of reaction he would have expected from Helga.

Helga turned back to Jeffrey. “I've long thought that this department needs someone to oversee all its inspectors, Jeffrey,” she said, “and I can't think of a better person for the job than Peter.”

There was a look of surprise on Peter's face. “But I thought …,” he began.

“No, Peter,” said Helga, with a warm and friendly look on her face. “I shall enjoy having you as this department's Public Sector Inspector Inspector. I have no doubt you will fulfill the role admirably - indeed much better than any of the existing inspectors in the department could do.” She paused, and then added with a strange glint in her eye and a hardening of her expression, “And I'm certain you will stay in the position for as long as you deserve, which I hope will be until you reach a well-earned retirement.”

Peter wasn't sure what to say. Eventually he said, “Thank you, Helga. I didn't expect such a positive reaction from you.”

Jeffrey smiled at the two of them. “Now,” he said, “do you two know what you're doing today?”

“I know what we're doing today,” said Helga. She turned to Peter. “We've got a bit of a long drive today, Peter. We're only visiting one public sector department, but it's quite a way from here.”

Jeffrey looked at Peter. “It's an interesting department you're going to see, Peter.” He stood up. “Remember, Peter, I'm announcing your promotion to all the inspectors tomorrow morning at ten, so make sure you're here for then.” He turned to Helga. “You too, Helga.” He looked at both of them. “Prepare a little something appropriate to say.” He turned to Peter. “And Peter,” he said, “put your speech in 'public sector speak', will you?”

“Yes, of course, Jeffrey,” said Peter.

“Good,” said Jeffrey. He held out a hand. Peter stood up and shook it. Jeffrey sat down again. “Okay,” he said. “Off you both go.” He began to busy himself with some of the paperwork on his desk.

Peter turned. Helga was looking at him. She smiled, but in an odd way. Then she turned towards the door.

“Come on, Peter,” she said.

Peter followed her out of the office, closing the door behind them.

More than three hours later, Peter and Helga were sitting in Peter's car, driving alongside a high fence topped with lethal-looking razor wire. They continued driving along the public highway, looking at the fence with its very official warning signs and its high-up floodlights, and then after several hundred meters an entrance appeared. It was not in any way a normal entrance, but rather it appeared to be the entrance to some sort of military establishment. Indeed there were a couple of armed military personnel standing to either side of a guardhouse, which itself stood in front of some very robust-looking gates. Closer inspection would have revealed that in front of the gates, built into the ground, were 'vehicle stoppers' - huge, multi-tonne wedges of steel that could swivel up out of the ground at a moment's notice to bring to a halt any vehicle that might have been attempting to ram its way through the gates and into this heavily protected, and therefore presumably rather important, site.

Peter turned the Mercedes into the entrance to the site and brought it to a halt near the guardhouse. A guard with a pistol in a holster on his belt came out of the lodge and approached the car. Peter wound down his window.

“May I ask who you and your passenger are and what your business here is, sir?” the guard asked him.

Helga leant across Peter. “We're Helga Sprott and Peter Patter,” she said, “from the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction. We have an appointment with the Director here, Mr. Erno.”

“Do you have ID?” said the guard.

Peter and Helga showed their official departmental ID's.

The guard nodded his head to show he was satisfied with them. “Wait here a moment,” he said. He went back into the guardhouse and made a phone call. About two minutes later an official-looking car with an orange flashing light on its roof appeared on the other side of the entrance gates.

The gates slowly opened.

The guard came out of the guardhouse and walked over to Peter's car. “Follow that vehicle with the flashing light,” he said, indicating the car on the other side of the now open gates. “It will take you to where Mr. Erno is waiting for you.”

The car with the flashing light turned around and headed steadily off down the road that led into the site. Peter let the brake off and drove equally steadily a short distance behind it. As they progressed deeper and deeper into the site, Peter and Helga looked around. There were military personnel in fairly considerable numbers, and there was some serious-looking weaponry around the site in the form of heavy duty guns and even what seemed to be missile launchers.

“I wasn't expecting this,” said Peter with a wry smile.

Helga said nothing.

After maybe two minutes of driving, the road curved through a break in a dense line of trees, and there ahead of them Peter and Helga saw an absolutely huge building, like a massive flat-roofed warehouse.

The car with the flashing light pulled up in front of it. Peter pulled up behind the security car.

Outside the building stood two armed guards, relaxed in the way that only people with a government's permission to kill can be relaxed. Between them stood a man in a dark suit, with an open, friendly half-smile on his face.

Peter switched the engine off, and he and Helga got out of the car and walked over to the man.

Peter didn't bother locking the car.

The driver of the security car got out, smiled at Peter and Helga, and went over and stood to one side of the man in the dark suit.

The man in the suit reached out a hand as Peter and Helga approached. Peter reached out a hand.

“Peter Patter, yes?” said the man, shaking Peter's hand. He turned and shook Helga's hand. “And Miss Sprott? I'm Mr. Erno.”

Peter and Helga greeted him.

“Peter here,” said Helga, “has just been appointed Public Sector Inspector Inspector to oversee all the Public Sector Inspectors, of which I am the most senior. He needs to familiarize himself with all the different sections of state apparatus that we inspectors are required to inspect.”

Mr. Erno smiled tolerantly. “And that of course includes the country's gold bullion depository,” he said. He turned to Peter. “Have you ever seen gold bullion, Mr. Patter? Have you ever held a four hundred ounce good delivery gold bar in your hands?”

“No, Mr. Erno,” said Peter, “I don't believe I have.”

“Then we must change that situation immediately,” said Mr. Erno. “Follow me.”

Mr. Erno walked over to the massive doors at the front of the warehouse. The guard who had driven the security car went on ahead and punched a number into the keypad on the front of the door. He then pushed the massive steel doors open.

Mr. Erno turned and smiled at Peter and Helga. Then he walked into the pitch blackness.

Peter and Helga followed him.

The guard stepped inside and flicked a switch. A blinding light came on. Gradually Peter's eyes adapted to the brilliance. But it simply seemed as though they were in an empty warehouse. Then in the distance Peter could make out a small desk with a figure sitting at it. Mr. Erno started walking to towards the desk. Peter and Helga followed him. The guard followed behind them.

It was a long walk.

Eventually they reached the desk. At it was sitting a rather careworn man with thinning hair.

“Hello Stan,” said Mr. Erno. “Mr. Patter here …” He indicated Peter. ”… is a Public Sector Inspector Inspector. There is no higher authority.”

“Other than a Departmental Director,” said Helga.

“Or a Minister who oversees a department,” said Peter helpfully.

“Or the Prime Minister who oversees all the Ministers,” said Stan.

“Indeed,” said Mr. Erno rather tetchily. “Stan, Mr. Patter would like to see our gold. Show him the gold.”

Stan opened a drawer of his desk and took out a piece of paper. He handed it to Peter.

Peter read out loud what was written on the paper.

“Thanks for lending us the thousand tonnes of gold. We promise we'll give it back to you. Until we do, we'll pay you interest for the loan of it. The interest each year will be one percent of the gold's value in America in 1933. Many thanks. The Safe Bank”

Peter handed the paper back to Stan, who put it away in the drawer again.

“So you see, Mr. Patter,” said Mr. Erno, “we have a thousand tonnes of gold. How many people can say that?”

“But it isn't here,” said Peter, stating the obvious.

“I can see you don't have a commercial mind, Mr. Patter,” said Mr. Erno. “Not only do we not have to pay to store the gold, but the people who store it for us pay us. That's rather clever, don't you think?”

“Mr. Erno, that is a brilliant arrangement,” said Helga. “Don't you think so, Peter?”

“Very clever,” said Peter, rather doubtfully.

“Now you know how much gold the country has, Peter, “said Helga. “One thousand tonnes. And it's being well looked after. And not just safely and securely, but profitably too. Mr. Erno is actually bringing money into the public sector.” Helga turned to Mr. Erno. “If only all public servants were like you, Mr. Erno,” she said.

Mr. Erno smiled. “I like to do my little bit to help the nation's finances,” he said.

Helga turned back to Peter. “Peter, is there anything else you'd like to ask Mr. Erno?”

“No,” said Peter. “Except I'd just like to thank Mr. Erno for giving me the chance to see and touch our nation's gold bullion reserves.”

“My pleasure,” said Mr. Erno. “Now, Mr. Patter, Miss Sprott, you'll no doubt want to be on your way to see to other important matters. But I'm glad to have been able to reassure you that our nation's finances are backed by the oldest and most solid currency in the world - gold.” He turned and started the long walk back to the entrance of the essentially empty warehouse. “My men will escort you safely from Fort Bollox,” he said over his shoulder.

Once outside in the bright sunshine, Mr. Erno bowed politely to Helga and Peter, and then he stepped into the back of an imposing black limousine with blacked out windows and was driven around the side of the massive building and out of sight. Peter and Helga got into Peter's car, the security guard got into his own car with the flashing light on top, and Helga and Peter were escorted back up to the entrance to the site and seen out safely through the gates and between the guards and onto the public road.

“I don't think I've ever seen such a valuable and well-guarded piece of paper,” Peter said drily as he set off on the long drive back to the office.

Chapter Sixteen

That night Peter was alone in his house with the television on and a cold glass of chilled white wine in his hand when his phone rang. He put his drink down, took his mobile phone out of one of his pockets, and looked at the number that showed up on the screen.

He answered the phone. “Hi. Is that you, Issie?” he said. “Good to hear from you. No, I'm on my own. Just having a drink and watching TV. Yes, of course, if you want to. It would be nice to see you. How long will it be before you get here? No, an hour's time would be fine. I might just go and have a shower and freshen up. OK, I'll see you then.”

He finished the call, grabbed his glass of wine, and stood up and made his way to the bathroom off his bedroom.

Later, nicely scrubbed up and in smart casual clothes, he was in the sitting room again when the doorbell rang. He went to the front door and opened it. Issie was standing there looking as though she too had made an effort with her appearance, although she was always pleasing to the eye anyway.

“Hi, Issie,” said Peter. “Come in.”

Issie stepped inside the house. As she did so, she gave Peter a kiss. “Good to see you again, Peter,” she said. “Did you have a good day at work today?”

“Would say it was interesting,” said Peter. “You know, the more I see of what goes on with our government and this country's public sector in general, the more surprised I am and the more I despair.” He closed the front door. “Come on through.” He led the way into the sitting room. “Fancy a drink? I've opened a bottle of wine.”

“Wine would be fine,” said Issie, smiling.

“Sit down anywhere,” said Peter.

Issie sat down on the sofa. Peter poured out a glass of wine for her, picked up his own full glass, and sat down next to her.

Issie took a sip from her glass. “I hear you've been made your department's Public Sector Inspector Inspector at last,” she said. “Jeffrey told my dad.”

“Yes,” said Peter. “It's all happened more quickly than I expected. And you wouldn't believe the salary Jeffrey's put me on. I certainly haven't got any money worries now.”

“So long as you stay in your job,” Issie said rather archly.

“What does that mean?” asked Peter, frowning slightly.

“There could be more changes taking place in your department apart from you landing your newly created job,” said Issie. “All I'm saying is, be prepared to keep on your toes.”

“What changes are taking place?” said Peter.

“You'll find out,” said Issie. She put her glass down. Then she took Peter's glass and put it on one side. She leant towards him and embraced him in a way that left no doubt about her intentions.

They kissed.

She leant back and looked him in the eyes. “Listen, Peter,” she said, “I want you to watch out for me at work. You know I've been on the payroll of Jeffrey's department for ages, but I've never actually turned up and done any work? Keep an eye on the situation so I don't get found out and get into trouble, and so that dad and Jeffrey don't get into trouble either. They'll probably sort something else out for me soon, but I just need you to keep a lookout over the next few days or perhaps weeks for any trouble that might be coming over the horizon, both for me and for them.”

Peter shrugged his shoulders. “Of course,” he said. “But why the sudden concern? If the situation's been rolling along happily for ages, why are you worried about the truth coming out in the open now?”

“You'll realize soon enough,” said Issie. She kissed Peter again. “Can I stay here the night?” she asked. “As a way of saying thank you to you?”

“You don't need to do that,” protested Peter, “but …”

“I'd like to,” said Issie.

Peter smiled. “Okay,” he said. “I'm not going to say no.”

“Good,” said Issie. “Let me go and have a shower.”

“There's an en suite bathroom off my bedroom,” said Peter. “It has a shower in it. My room is at the top of the stairs, the door on the right.”

Issie stood up. “Give me fifteen minutes,” she said. “Bring the wine up with you.”

She left the room and disappeared upstairs. Peter went into the kitchen and closed the door behind himself. Taking out his phone, he dialed a number.

“Hi, Nick,” he said into the phone. “It's Peter. I didn't have a chance to see you at work today, but I had some good news this morning. Jeffrey's made me the department's Inspector Inspector. Huh? Well, yes, I suppose technically it means I'm above you. The salary's really good too. Anyway, as my friend I'm not going to be looking to find fault with anything you do. And guess what else? You know the Government Minister that Jeffrey has to answer to? Sir Nevile Grevile? That's right. Well, I've got his daughter Issie waiting for me in my bedroom upstairs. It's like all my ships have come in at once.” There was a pause, then, “Oh come on, Nick! Don't sound annoyed. You sound jealous. I know I owe all this to you - the house, the car, the job, the salary. I'm eternally grateful to you. I'll find some way of paying you back, I promise. Listen, Nick, I'd better go. Issie Grevile is waiting for me. There was another pause. “What do you mean, 'What about Sophie?'? Sophie will never find out. This is just a bit of harmless fun. You know Sophie's the one for me long term.” Another pause. “Okay, Nick, I'll see you at work tomorrow.”

Peter switched the phone off, left the kitchen, and went upstairs.

The following day he was at work bright and early, sitting in his office and going through some paperwork. Then at ten o'clock he went along to one of the big open plan offices. There he found Jeffrey standing in front of an assembly made up of pretty much all the department's Public Sector Inspectors. Helga was seated on one side of Jeffrey. She indicated to Peter that he should sit in the chair on the other side of their boss. Once Peter was seated, Jeffrey began to speak.

“Gentlemen, ladies,” he began. “I called you together this morning because I have some announcements to make. First of all, you all know Peter here.” He indicated Peter. “Some of you have expressed surprise that I brought someone in from outside the department to check up on the work that all of you do. But not only did I want someone whose vision and judgment would be unaffected by established friendships and ingrained habits arising from familiarity with the work we do, but Peter also produced such outstanding results in his Public Sector Entrance Exam and subsequent assessment and interview that I felt he was the ideal candidate for the post that I wanted to create.” He paused. “And now that post has been created. Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Patter is your new Public Sector Inspector Inspector. He is the person who from now on will be inspecting the work of all of this department's Inspectors.” Jeffrey turned to Peter. “Peter, perhaps you would like to say a few words.”

Jeffrey sat down in the chair positioned behind him, and Peter stood up.

“Yesterday,” said Peter, “I officially became the Public Sector Inspector Inspector for the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction. This is a great honor for me and I fully intend to prove that I am more than up to the job. I appreciate that I still have a lot to learn, but with the help of all of you, and especially with the help of Jeffrey Coller, and also of Helga Sprott, I am determined to learn as quickly as possible all that I need to know. Once I have acquired the necessary knowledge, I am sure that I shall be absolutely competent to inspect the work of all the Inspectors in the Department.” He paused for a moment, then continued speedily, “Now, I want all of us to be on-message at all times and for us to be fully systemized as well as being comprehensively monitored. We will need to regenerate our protocols and instigate a positive, incremental approach with regard to attaining our goals. We shall need to push the envelope of our blue sky thinking. I want our policy making to be both interactive and innovative. Pro-activity is not an option, it is mandatory.” He paused again. “Is that clear?” he concluded.

There was a vague murmur from all the Inspectors which could have meant anything.

“Good,” said Peter.

He sat down, and Jeffrey stood up again.

“Thank you, Peter,” he said. “Now we all know where we stand going forward.” He paused, then recommenced. “I have two other things to tell you today. Firstly, with effect from today, I am no longer the Director of this Department.” He looked at the mildly surprised faces in front of him. “You know that we come under the remit of the Ministry for the Oversight of the Public Sector? I don't know whether this is a promotion or a step sideways, but I have been asked to take on the Directorship of the Department of Grants under the remit of the Ministry of the Public Purse. Essentially that means I will be responsible for dispensing taxpayers' money in the form of grants in accordance with the law and according to need, suitability and how deserving an applicant is.” There was silence. “You will wondering,” Jeffrey went on, “who the new Director of this Department is going to be.” He allowed a few seconds for his audience to speculate before he enlightened them. “It is Helga Sprott,” he said. “Our most senior and experienced Inspector.” He turned to Helga. “Helga,” he said, “perhaps you would like to say a few words.”

He sat down, and Helga got to her feet. She cleared her throat.

“Jeffrey's move,” she began, “is definitely a promotion as the department he is moving to has a much larger staff than this one and a vastly greater budget. Therefore I would like to congratulate him on his promotion.” She paused, and then continued, “Now, all of you know me in this Department. You know my history here and the level and extent of my experience. So I hope you will feel that Jeffrey has made the right choice in appointing me to be his successor. One thing I want to remind you of is that our department is called the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction. This department is not immune to being assessed for its own efficiency and to being looked at to see if any cost reductions can be made. Therefore I put all of you on notice that I shall be looking to see if I can improve efficiency and make cost savings here.” She looked at her audience. “I want all systems and personnel operating at maximum efficiency at all times.” She turned to Peter and said with a tight-lipped smile, “With the help of our new Public Sector Inspector Inspector, of course.”

Peter smiled back, but there was somehow a lack of confidence in his smile.

Helga sat down, and again Jeffrey got to his feet.

“Thank you, everyone,” he said. “Now, back to work, all of you. I must get on with clearing my office of any personnel effects so that Helga can move in, and then I shall be on my way. Of course all of you are welcome to get in touch with me at any time at my new Department. Thank you.”

The inspectors began to disperse, and Helga and Jeffrey left the room. Peter went over to Nick.

“Nick,” Peter said to his friend, “this is disastrous. I just get promoted into my newly created job and then the guy who's effectively my mentor and protector disappears and replaces himself with someone who's openly against me. Probably not just against me but against the very idea of this department having and Inspector Inspector.”

“I never understood why Jeffrey wanted to create the position you've got in the first place,” Nick said rather unsympathetically. “The Director of the Department should be the one keeping an eye on us and making sure we're all doing our jobs properly. I don't see why Helga should not now make that work her responsibility.”

“So you're not on my side?” said Peter.

“Listen, Peter,” said Nick. “I've been working here for years. When I made it possible for you to get into the public sector in this department I thought you'd become an inspector like me. I didn't think you'd get promoted over my head in a matter of weeks, and at over twice my salary.”

“It wasn't my choosing, Nick,” said Peter. “It's just the way things worked out.”

“I suppose you're right,” said Nick reluctantly. “I suppose I should feel good for you and your good fortune.”

“Maybe,” said Peter, “but I'm not sure how long my good fortune is going to last. Helga's out to get rid of me, I'm sure.”

“It's not easy to get rid of someone from the public sector,” said Nick. “Not without bunging them a big pay-off, or letting them retire early, or both.” He turned away. “Anyway, Peter, I've got work to do. No doubt you have to.”

And with that, he walked off.

Peter hesitated momentarily, then turned and walked out of the room and made his way to the security of his own office.

That night Peter was sitting in his sitting room. Half of him was filled with pleasure at the thought of the previous night that had been spent with Issie, but the other half of him was fretting over the day's developments and what they boded for his future. His thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell ringing. He got up and went and opened the front door. Sophie was standing on the doorstep.

“Sophie!” said Peter. “Come in. What's up?”

Sophie came in. Wordlessly she followed Peter into the sitting room and they both sat down on the sofa.

“It's your mum and dad, Peter,” said Sophie. “They're out of that horrible bed and breakfast place they were staying in, but now they're somewhere that if anything is even worse. The local council has put them in a house on a rough housing estate. They won't fit in there at all. Their lives are going to be made an absolute nightmare by the people there.”

“What can I do?” said Peter. “You know how pig-headed my dad is. He won't accept any help from me. I spoke to mother and she's tried getting him to come and stay here with me, but he won't have it. He just says he got my mum and himself into the mess they're in and he'll get them out of it.” He paused, and then went on, “Anyway, it looks as though I'm likely to have problems of my own to deal with.”

“What sort of problems?” said Sophie.

“My boss has left to become head of another public sector department,” said Peter. “The woman who's taken over from him is out to get rid of me. I'm sure of it. And that means I'd have to leave this house sooner than I planned. And of course the car would go. Most seriously, my money would go.” He shook his head, “So far while I've been in this job all I've done is pay off my credit cards, so at least I've got no debt, but I've got no spare money either.”

“I guess you'll just have to wait and see what happens,” said Sophie. “Maybe your new boss won't be as bad as you think.”

“I doubt it,” said Peter. “She's made it pretty clear that she doesn't like me, she thinks I got my job under false pretences, which of course I did, and she wants me out.”

“That's as maybe,” said Sophie, “but let's think about your parents for the time being. Try getting in touch with them again. I can't bear to think of them living the way they're living now. At least go and see them so you can see for yourself what their house is like and how rough the area is that they're living in.”

“Okay,” said Peter. He hesitated. “Listen, Sophie, do you want to stay the night? I could do with the company. I can knock us up some food, and I've got some wine in the fridge.”

Sophie also hesitated, but then she stood up. “No, Peter,” she said. “That sort of casual stuff isn't really for me. I realized that after the other night.” There was a long pause, then she said, “But maybe it's alright for others.” She looked around the room. “I almost have the feeling some other woman has been here,” she said.

“No, Sophie,” Peter protested. “No one's been here except you and Nick.”

“Really?” said Sophie. “Anyway,” she went on, “I've decided that if there's to be any more sleeping together, it'll be when we live together and we're in a committed relationship, with a definite date fixed for getting married.”

“It'll happen, Sophie,” said Peter. “Just let me see how my situation at work unfolds first.”

Sophie headed for the front door. “Let's hope it works out well,” she said. “If not, you'll just have to do something to get yourself in a better situation.” She left the sitting room.

Peter heard the front door open. “Good night, Peter,” he heard Sophie say. “I'll see myself out.”

There was the sound of the front door closing.

Peter sat there silently in the sitting room. His head was full of troubled and confused thoughts.

Chapter Seventeen

The following morning at work, Peter went to what had been Jeffrey's office, but was now Helga's. He knocked on the door and went in.

“Morning, Helga,” he said, trying to sound bright and confident.

“Morning, Peter,” said Helga. “I've just been sorting out what you can do today. I think you should go and see a couple of public sector departments that you haven't seen yet.”

“OK,” said Peter. “Which ones are they?”

“The Ministry of Military this morning,” said Helga, “and then the Ministry of Agriculture this afternoon.”

“Will I find them interesting?” Peter asked with a smile.

“The former more so than the latter, I suspect,” said Helga. She paused, then continued, “This afternoon, after you've visited the Ministry of Agriculture, I want you to come back here and write up two reports about the information you've gathered and what you've learnt today.”

“Reports?” said Peter. “Jeffrey never asked me to write reports.”

“Jeffrey is no longer here,” said Helga. “I'm here now. I'm the Director of this Department, so I decide what my staff will do, and that includes you, Peter Patter.” She picked up a sheet of paper and held it out to Peter. “Here are the addresses of the two Ministries you're visiting today, plus the names of the people you're meeting, along with phone numbers in case you run late or have problems finding where you're supposed to be going.”

Peter took the sheet of paper.

“I'll see you back here this afternoon,” said Helga, getting on with reading through some other paperwork on her desk.

Peter silently left the room.

Later that morning, Peter found himself being shown into the office of the Minister of the Military. As the door closed behind him, he looked and saw a not unattractive woman sitting behind a desk. On seeing Peter, she rose to her feet, smiled, and stretched out a hand across the desk. Peter shook hands with the Minister.

“Mr. Patter. How do you do?” she said. “May I call you Peter? I'm Janet Rigby, Minister of the Military. Call me Janet.”

“How do you do?” said Peter. “Yes, Janet, please call me Peter.”

“Good,” said Janet. She sat down again. “Take a seat,” she said, indicating a seat that faced her on the other side of the desk.

Peter sat down.

“So,” said Janet, “Jeffrey has moved on to pastures new, has he? I haven't met his replacement, Helga Sprott, yet, but I've spoken to her on the phone. She sounds very efficient and businesslike.”

“Well, we are a department that is supposed to encourage efficiency in the public sector,” said Peter.

“Indeed,” said Janet. She scrutinized Peter. “Miss Sprott tells me that your role is to inspect the work of your department's Inspectors. You therefore need to get some understanding of what all the various public sector departments do so that you can check that your Inspectors are looking out for the right things and ensuring that the right standards are being met.”

“That's right,” said Peter.

“Okay,” said Janet. “It's quite simple for me to give you an overview of what my Ministry is responsible for. We have an army, a navy and an air force. We also have volunteer reserves for all three forces. I have to make sure that our personnel are properly equipped, that they are well trained, that they are deployed in the right places, and that they do the right things once they are there.”

There was silence. Then Peter said, “I've always wondered why we deploy our military forces in so many different locations around the world. Couldn't we just keep our forces here in our homeland to defend us if we get attacked?”

“The best form of defense is attack, Peter,” said Janet. “You've got to get to the enemy before they get to you. Better still, get to them first and show them that it isn't even worth trying to get to you.”

“Don't we just annoy and provoke people by going into their countries?” said Peter.

“Often, that's true, yes,” said Janet. “But there's something else we have to take into consideration. If we kept our forces at home, imagine how few personnel we'd need, and how little there would be for those people to do.”

“Would that be a bad thing?” asked Peter.

“Of course,” said Janet. “Part of our job is to keep people in employment. Remember that as well as the people we employ directly, there are lots of people employed in supplying our armed forces with the equipment and materials and services we need.” She smiled at Peter. “Now, Peter,” she said, “you wouldn't want to put all those people out of work, would you?”

“I suppose not,” said Peter. “But if it meant less government expenditure and therefore required less taxpayers' money to be taken off people, as well as fewer people being killed or injured, then surely that would be a good thing.”

“If only life were that simple, Peter,” said Janet. “But remember that as well as spending lots of money so that people can have jobs, the government also needs to show other countries that we have power, that we have military might. It's one thing to have it, but you also have to show other people that you have it. Indeed even if you don't have it, you still have to try to give the impression that you do. That's why we do so much that seems unnecessary, militarily speaking.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Peter said somewhat doubtfully. He thought for a moment, and then said, “In that case the job of the Public Sector Inspectors in my department isn't to try to make your department do less, but rather to make sure that you're seen to do as much as possible with the money that the government makes available to you to spend.”

“Yes,” said Janet, “but remember that we like, indeed need, to be generous with our military equipment suppliers. We need to keep on the right side of them. That way we can be fairly certain that we'll get what we want when we want it. Also remember that when my tenure here in this Ministry is over, I shall want a job in the defense sector, and they're not going to give me one unless I've been generous with them whilst I was Minister here.”

“That's a very pragmatic approach to your current job,” said Peter.

“A top level public sector job is often an entrée into a lucrative position in the private sector,” said Janet, smiling. She paused, then said, “So there in a nutshell is what my Ministry is all about. Of course your Inspectors will be interested in the money that we spend and what we spend it on, but they need to understand what our aims and motives are.”

“If they don't, I shall be ensure to enlighten them,” said Peter.

Janet got to her feet. “Why don't we go into another office,” she said, “and I'll show you some of our financial accounts and you can see where the money goes. The numbers are mind boggling. The public would be furious if they really knew how much of their cash is given to the military, either directly or indirectly.”

Peter got to his feet. “I have a feeling I'm going to find this a revelation,” he said. “After that, however, I'll have to go. I have to be at the Ministry Of Agriculture after lunch, and it's a rather long drive to get there.”

“Okay,” said Janet. “Let's go and look at some of these figures and then you can be on your way.”

She led the way out of the office, and Peter followed her, closing the door after them.

After a quick, light lunch, which he charged to his public sector credit card, and after what was indeed a rather lengthy drive into the depths of the countryside, Peter found himself strolling outside a grand country house with an affable, tweed-suited man who looked like a country squire.

“It's good to meet you, Peter,” said the man. “You found your way here alright? We're a bit off the beaten track.”

“No problems at all,” said Peter. “The sat nav brought me straight here.”

“Good,” said the man. They walked in silence for a few seconds. Then the man said, “So you'll be keeping an eye on the inspectors who keep an eye on us, will you?”

“Yes,” said Peter. “That's why what I'm trying to do is get an overview of what all the different departments of the public sector do that my department has to oversee.”

“Have you come into the public sector from outside,” said the man, “or have you worked your way up on the inside?”

“I've come in as an outsider,” said Peter. “The man who recruited me, Jeffrey Coller, has now moved on to a different department, but he wanted someone with a fresh pair of eyes who didn't come with a lot of public sector baggage.”

“Good idea,” said the man. “So you just want me to tell you in outline what the Ministry of Agriculture does?”

“Yes, if you would,” said Peter.

“First of all,” said the man, “apologies again for the Minister not being able to see you today. He's up in town speaking at a big conference, so that's why he's arranged for me to meet you. As well as being a representative for the Ministry I'm also the estate manager for this place you see here.”

“Does this place belong to the Ministry?” Peter asked.

“Yes,” said the man. “Officially it's our rural headquarters, but really it's just a lovely country estate where the Minister likes to come and stay for weekends and holidays. You could say it's one of the perks of being the Minister of Agriculture.” The man smiled. “Actually, though, it's a bigger perk for me because I live here.”

“Very nice,” said Peter.

“It's not our only estate either,” the man went on. “We have other ones that are better for hunting, shooting and fishing.”

“All the estates are fully staffed, I guess,” said Peter.

“Yes,” said the man. He turned and looked briefly at the wonderful country house behind them. “There are few people in the country who could afford the properties and levels of staffing that we have.” They walked on. “You know, Peter,” the man went on, “I love living at this place. How else could I ever get to have a lifestyle like this other than by working for the Ministry?”

“How indeed,” said Peter. “But all these pleasant perks are justifiable presumably because the Ministry of Agriculture does a lot of good work.”

“We do,” said the man. “Or we like to think we do. We have a broad remit. It's not just agriculture, but fisheries and forestry too. Animal welfare is one of our big concerns. And wildlife. And food quality, especially with all this genetically modified food that's appearing in the human food chain. Rivers we look after. And of course we deal with the handing out of grants to farmers.”

“Do farmers need grants?” Peter asked. “Can't they just operate according to supply and demand like most small businesses?”

“Farmers have always been singled out for special, favorable treatment,” said the man. “A lot of the members of our ruling class either come from land-owning families or they're related to land-owners, so naturally they want to look after their own sort.”

“So when they hand out grants,” said Peter, “really they're just looking after themselves?”

“Yes,” said the man. “But then that's what politics is largely about - the nation's ruling class looking after itself.” He looked at Peter. “By the way,” he said, “did you lunch on your way here?”

“Just a little snack,” said Peter. “I didn't really have time for what you might call a proper lunch.”

“Do you fancy having something decent to eat then?” the man asked. “We have a terrific chef here. Then afterwards I'll walk you around the estate.”

“I'd like that very much,” said Peter. “Thank you.”

“Excellent,” said the man. “Let's go in then. Imagine you're visiting a rich, aristocratic friend.”

Peter smiled. “You know,” he said, “the longer I'm in the public sector, the more I see how good it is to be in it.”

With that, he and the estate manager turned and walked back towards the grand house.

Later that day, after spending a pleasant time on the country estate in very agreeable company, and then a somewhat less pleasant drive back to the department where he worked, Peter stood outside Helga's office and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” he heard Helga say.

Peter entered the office. “Afternoon, Helga,” he said breezily.

“You sound happy,” said Helga.

“I've had a good day,” said Peter.

“You're not paid to enjoy yourself, Peter,” Helga said a little sharply. “You're paid to know things and do things.” She gazed at Peter. “Have you written up the two reports on what you've done today?”

“Not yet,” said Peter. “I've only just got back.”

“You'd better get started on them then,” said Helga.

“But it's almost time to go home,” Peter protested.

“That's right,” said Helga. “The operative word there is 'almost', so get started on writing the reports now. And I want them completed and on my desk first thing in the morning.”

Wordlessly, Peter turned and walked out of the office. Toying only briefly with disobeying Helga's instructions, he went into his own office, sat down at his desk, and started writing up the two reports that he had been ordered to produce.

At midnight, Peter was still sitting at a desk and working on completing the two reports, but this was the desk in the study of his own home. An hour later he was able to press a key on his computer and sit back in his seat as the printer churned out sheet after sheet of printed paper. Leaving the two completed reports in the out tray of the printer, Peter got wearily to his feet, switched off the desk lamp, and trudged off to bed for a short night's sleep.

Chapter Eighteen

The next morning, Peter was in his office at work when a voice came out of the intercom on his desk. It was Helga.

“Peter, can you come into my office, please?”

“Yes, of course,” said Peter.

A matter of seconds later he was in Helga's office, standing in front of her desk.

Helga waved his two reports at him. “These reports,” she said, “are not adequate.” She handed the reports back to Peter. “They don't meet the required standards.” She picked up a thick, coil-bound manual from her desk and handed it to Peter. “This is a manual that gives instructions on how public sector reports should be written. I want you to read it. When you've read it, I want you to rewrite your reports.” She leaned back in her chair and looked at Peter. “I've booked an appointment for you to visit the Department for Immigration this afternoon,” she went on. “Be there at two o'clock. Afterwards I want you to write up a report on your visit.” She leaned forward, picked up a sheet of paper from her desk, and handed it to Peter. “Here are the details of where you're going and who you're seeing.”

Peter took the paper and looked at it. When he looked up again, Helga was engrossed in the other paperwork on her desk. Peter waited for several seconds. Then, realizing that she had nothing more to say to him, he turned and left the office.

That afternoon he visited the Department of Immigration as instructed. Unusually Peter and the Director of the Department sat side by side on a sofa in the Director's office.

“You see, Peter,” the Director said, “a lot of people seem to think we have a problem with immigration. They think we have too much of it. But in fact we need more immigrants.”

“More?” said Peter.

“Yes,” said the Director. “You see people in this country won't do basic jobs. They'd rather do nothing and just bum along on benefits. So we need the immigrants to do the crap jobs.”

“Surely if we made it less attractive for people to be on benefits, and at the same time we stopped practically all immigration, it would force our people to work,” said Peter. “No?”

“You'd be no good in politics, would you, Peter?” laughed the Director. “This is a democracy. Democracy means buying votes. It means giving the majority what the majority wants, or at least appearing to do so. How many votes do you think a political party would get if they said they were going to make people do crap jobs instead of having a cushy life on benefits?” The Director leaned back and looked at Peter. Then he leaned forward again. “No, Peter,” he said. “We need the immigrants to do the jobs our own people are too lazy to do.” He paused, and then said, “And there's more.”

“What's that?” asked Peter.

“This is an old country,” said the Director. “I mean it's a country full of old people. Many of those old people have had an easy life because of decades of socialism funded by high taxation and massive government borrowing. Now we need people to pay for all that generosity and debt. When the people who are old now were growing up there weren't many old people for them to have to subsidize, so they could keep more of the money they earned for themselves. But now we're drowning in old people, along with younger people who have got used to living on government handouts, so we need to import people to work and pay taxes to subsidize our idle and non-productive and state-supported people and to service all the debt that the government has incurred in order to allow people to have easy lives.”

Peter thought about this, then asked, “So what exactly is our national policy on immigration?”

The Director laughed. “It's an open door policy. Anyone can come on in. We won't shut the door in front of you. We won't shut it behind you either.”

“In other words, anyone from anywhere can come and live here?” said Peter.

“The funny thing is, no,” said the Director. “What I just said to you wasn't entirely correct. You see, if you're honest and decent and have useful skills, and you apply through the proper channels to come and live in this country, we'll probably say no. If you're a piece of trash, however, and you can get into the country by fair means or foul, we'll probably let you stay here and work here. Or if you can't, or won't, find a job we'll put a roof over your head and give you some money to live on.”

“No wonder people say this country is a joke - a bad one,” said Peter.

“Indeed,” said the Director. “But remember, Peter, in a few years' time it'll probably be immigrants who are paying your public sector pension.”

“True enough,” said Peter. He looked at the Director and then said, “Between you and me, the sooner I can retire, the better.”

The Director smiled. “We don't usually admit it to any people we know in the private sector, Peter, but most of us in the public sector feel the same. It's the generous pension and retirement pay-off that attracts us to working in the public sector in the first place, and once we're in it we want to retire just as soon as we can. Often it's only the thought of the pension we're going to get that keeps us doing work that we probably don't like.” The Director leaned back on the sofa. “Now, Peter,” he said, “is there any more you want to know about the immigration policies in this country?”

“No,” said Peter. “I think I've got the gist of it. Now I've got to go back to the office and write up a report on what I've learnt.”

“Oh, you've got one of those bosses, have you?” said the Director. “Bad luck. I try to be much more lax with my staff. I reckon if I leave them alone, they'll leave me alone.”

He stood up. Peter stood up too, and the two men shook hands.

“Hang on in there, Peter,” said the Director, “no matter what your boss is like. It's better to be here on the inside than to be out there struggling to make your way in the real world.”

“I'll do my best,” said Peter. He looked at the Director. “Thank you for seeing me today.”

“My pleasure, Peter,” said the Director.”Remember, the policy of my personal office is the same as our immigration policy - anyone is free to come in any time they like without arranging anything beforehand.”

“I'll bear that in mind,” said Peter.

The two men shook hands again, and the Director showed Peter out of the office.

Just like the previous night, this night too Peter had to sit up late after he had got home. Because he had to finish reading the manual instructing him in the correct way to write reports, and then rewrite the inadequate reports he had written yesterday, and then write a report on today's departmental visit, it was again after midnight by the time he was able to go upstairs from his study and collapse exhausted into bed.

Chapter Nineteen

The next morning, Peter entered Helga's office. She looked up from the work she was doing. Peter put the three reports on her desk.

“The three reports on the three departments I visited yesterday and the day before,” said Peter. “Hopefully you'll find them satisfactory.”

“Hopefully I will,” said Helga.

“Do you have any particular tasks for me today?” asked Peter.

In return, Helga asked him, “What's your job title, Peter?”

Peter shrugged his shoulders. “I'm this department's Public Sector Inspector Inspector,” he said.

“Absolutely right,” said Helga. “So you won't be surprised to hear that I want you to inspect the work of one of our Public Sector Inspectors.”

“Any particular Inspector?” Peter asked.

“I thought to make it easy for you,” said Helga, “you could start with someone with whom I believe you're personally familiar, even if you're not familiar with their work.” Helga leaned back in her chair and looked at Peter steadily. Then she said, “Isabel Grevile.”

Peter said nothing. He could feel himself beginning to tremble slightly.

After allowing the silence to go on for an uncomfortably long time. Helga eventually leaned forward and smiled. “I'm sorry, Peter,” she said. “My mind was wandering. Of course I meant your friend Nick Jenks. I'm sure you don't know anyone by the name of Isabel Grevile. But hold on. The Minister who oversees this department is Sir Nevile Grevile, isn't it? And you've met him, haven't you, Peter? I wonder if our employee Isabel is connected with him in some way.”

Peter forced himself to speak. “I really couldn't say,” he said. “But yes, I met Sir Nevile once.”

“More than once, I believe,” said Helga. “Didn't you go to a party at his country house?”

Peter gave the pretence of thinking. “Oh yes,” he said at last, “I did, but I can't actually remember if I spoke to Sir Nevile while I was there.”

Helga looked at him. Eventually she said, “Our old boss Jeffrey must have been - must still be - quite close to Sir Nevile.” She paused, and then said, “Sir Nevile has a wife and children, I presume.”

Peter cleared his throat. “Certainly he has a wife,” he said, “because the reason for this house party Jeffrey and I went to was to celebrate Sir Nevile's and his wife's thirtieth wedding anniversary.”

“What is the name of Sir Nevile's wife?” asked Helga.

“Lady Nevile,” said Peter.

Helga gave a tight-lipped smile. “Very droll,” she said. “I meant her Christian name. It isn't Isabel, is it?”

“No,” said Peter. “I believe it's Victoria.”

“Do they have any children?” Helga asked.

“It never occurred to me to ask,” said Peter.

“Weren't their children - however many of them there might be - at the party?” asked Helga.

Peter thought again. “If Sir Nevile and Lady Victoria have children and they were at the party,” said Peter, “I wasn't introduced to them, or if I was, I wasn't informed that any of the people I was introduced to were Sir Nevile's and Lady Victoria's children.”

Helga nodded her head. There was silence in the room for several seconds. “Very well,” she said at last. She took some forms and some notes from her desk and held them out to Peter. “Go into your own office,” she said, “and read through these papers first. They'll tell you how you should conduction a Public Sector Inspector Inspection and what information you need to gather. When you've done that, go and inspect the work of your friend, Nick Jenks.”

Peter took the papers.

“Report back to me after lunch,” Helga continued. “Then this afternoon you can write up an inspection report.”

Peter nodded his head. “Until after lunch then,” he said. He turned and left the office, doing so rather more hastily than usual. Outside in the corridor he tried to let the tension drain from his body, but he couldn't get some very worrying thoughts out of his mind.

Some minutes later, Peter approached Nick, who was working at his desk in one of the department's big open plan offices.

“Nick,” said Peter, “I need a word with you, officially and unofficially.”

Nick looked up. “Sounds intriguing,” he said. “Fire away.”

Peter gave a wry laugh. “If anything's going to be fired it's going to be me,” he said. “Anyway, the official bit is this. Helga's told me to do an inspection on you. I'll have to read all this paperwork first …” He waved the inspection instruction notes that Helga had given him. ”… to find out what I need to do and what I have to find out from you and about you. Perhaps we can do that a bit later on today.”

“Sure,” said Nick. “Just make sure your report on me comes out sounding positive.”

“Don't worry,” said Peter. “I will.”

“And what's the unofficial word you need to have with me?” asked Nick.

“You know the Minister responsible for this department is Sir Nevile Grevile?” said Peter.

“Of course,” said Nick.

“And you know the other night I phoned you and said his daughter Issie - Isabel - was at my house, just about to jump into bed with me?” said Peter.

“Yes,” said Nick. “I hoped you both enjoyed yourselves.”

“We did,” said Peter. He gathered his thoughts, and then continued. “Now, Helga just mentioned the name Isabel Grevile to me. There's only one reason I can think of why she should suddenly come up with that name, and that's because she's discovered it on this department's payroll.” He paused, then went on, “You see Jeffrey - our old boss - and Sir Nevile are close friends, and what they did was put Sir Nevile's daughter Issie on the department's payroll, but without requiring her to turn up and do any work. She's been getting public sector money in return for doing nothing for years.”

“Oh dear,” said Nick. “If that comes out there's potentially going to be some serious trouble, not just for your bed-mate, but for Jeffrey and Sir Nevile as well.”

“You're not kidding,” said Peter. “Possibly for me too if it ever comes out that I knew about this arrangement. But just now I denied even knowing whether Sir Nevile had a daughter, or indeed any children at all.”

“You'll have to stick to that story,” said Nick. After a pause he went on, “Listen, Peter, I think the best thing you can do is warn Jeffrey and Sir Peter and let them come up with a solution to the situation. After all, they created it.”

“Yes,” said Peter. “I think you're right. That's what I should do. I'll see to it as soon as possible.”

“After you've inspected me and my work,” said Nick.

“Of course,” said Peter. “I'll go and read all this stuff, and then when I know what's wanted I'll come back and we'll get on with it.”

“I'll be here,” said Nick.

“OK,” said Peter. “See you later. Then I'll write up the report over the weekend and hand it in to Helga on Monday.”

He left Nick to get on with his work and he headed back to his own office. Once there, he threw the paperwork he was carrying down onto the desk and took his mobile phone out of his pocket. He dialed a number. After a while, someone answered.

“Issie?” he said. “It's Peter. Can we meet up some time? Maybe with your dad and Jeffrey? I think we have a problem. It seems Helga, the new head of the department who took over from Jeffrey, has discovered that you're on the department's payroll.” Issie said something at the other end of the line. “She mentioned your name,” Peter explained, “and I think there's only one reason she would know your name.” Peter listened to what Issie was saying, and then said, “OK. Your dad's place in the country, midday Sunday. See you then.”

He finished the call. Then he sat down at his desk and started to read through the guidelines telling him how to carry out an Inspector inspection.

Chapter Twenty

The following day, a Saturday, Sophie arrived on Peter's doorstep and rang the doorbell. Peter, expecting her, opened the door almost straightaway, stepped outside, and gave her an affectionate, but brief, kiss on the lips.

“Thanks for coming over,” he said. “You know where mum and dad are living now, so you can tell me the way. We can go in my car.”

They walked over to Peter's Mercedes.

“Your car is certainly nicer and more expensive than mine,” said Sophie. “And I can't believe they let you have it for free.”

“That was my old boss's doing,” said Peter. “I wouldn't bank on my new boss letting me hang on to it for much longer.”

“Make the most of it while you have it then,” said Sophie.

They got in the car and drove off, Peter following Sophie's directions as she gave them to him.

Some time later, Peter and Sophie were sitting on a dingy sofa in the rather bleak sitting room of a featureless council house on a rough estate. Peter's mother Margaret came into the room carrying a tray with mugs of tea on it. She handed the mugs around, put the tray on an old sideboard, and then sat down in one of the two well-used armchairs that were in the room. In the other armchair, Peter's dad David sat silently.

“Jeez, dad,” said Peter to his father. “I can't believe it's come to this. This is a disgusting place.”

“It's free,” said David, shrugging his shoulders. “Thanks to the welfare state, at least people like us on our uppers get given somewhere to live and some pocket money to live on.”

“But why have you got this horrible old furniture?” asked Peter. “I thought you said you'd put all the furniture from our old house in storage. Can't you get some of that out?”

“You don't understand, Peter,” said Margaret. “Sometimes we have people from around here come in the house. If they saw expensive furniture they'd think we have some money and they'd be in here in the middle of the night trying to finding it.”

“Yes,” said David. “Also we have my trustee in bankruptcy keeping an eye on us, and if they thought we owned some valuable furniture, they'd just take it off us and sell it and give the money to my creditors.”

“Sophie said that the money you'd hidden on one side had been found and taken by your bank to help pay off what you owe them,” said Peter.

“Yes,” said David. “I just didn't realize that people like governments and banks are able to find and take control of people's banks accounts. I thought it was hidden and wouldn't be found. How wrong I was.”

“So you've got nothing?” said Peter.

“Nothing,” said David.

Margaret spoke up. “But,” she said, “some time after David is discharged from bankruptcy, we'll be able to get at the money we have in our private pension fund.”

“Yes,” said David. “At least that turns out to be out of the reach of my creditors. It means that if we can survive like this for a couple of years or so, we should alright. We'll be quite well off again actually.”

“At least that's some comfort,” said Peter. “How are you getting on here? I don't mean just in this house, but in this area?”

“It's a bit tough living here,” said Margaret. “The people round here are like animals. They don't like us. We're not their sort. We don't fit in at all.”

“I think the people round here are downright dangerous, Mrs. Patter,” said Sophie. “You and Mr. Patter need to be careful.”

Just then there was the sharp cracking sound of a stone hitting the out side of the sitting room window.

A harsh young voice from outside said, “Go back to where you came from, you posh gits.”

David leapt out of his chair and rushed to the front door and opened it. Peter, Sophie and Margaret followed him. They looked outside and saw the figures of three hoodie-wearing kids running away down the street. Realizing there was nothing to be done about the situation, David closed the door. Silently, he, Margaret, Peter and Sophie went back into the sitting room and sat down again.

David let out a weary sigh. “Peter, I think you and Sophie had better go,” he said. “That car of yours stands out like a sore thumb in this area. It'll get trashed if you leave it parked outside much longer. That's if it hasn't been 'keyed' already.”

Reluctantly, Peter and Sophie stood up.

“Dad,” said Peter, “why don't you and mum come and stay at my place? I've got a couple of spare bedrooms. On paper you'd still be living here, but in reality you could live with me.”

“If your mother and I feel things are unbearable, we'll consider it,” said David, “but for now we'll cope with the situation. In a way it helps put some pressure on me to come up with a way of starting to make money again and get something like our old standard of living back.”

David nodded his head. “I understand,” he said.

David and Margaret got to their feet and went with Peter and Sophie to the front door. Peter and Sophie stepped outside.

“Focus on your own situation, Peter,” David said, reaching out a hand. “Don't be satisfied just with being a wage slave. Try to use it as a springboard to something better.”

Peter shook his dad's hand. “I'll keep my eyes open for opportunities, dad,” he said, “but at the moment I'm just trying to cope with my new boss at work. She's trying her best to make my life difficult. In fact I'm pretty sure she's going to get rid of me one way or another.”

David smiled. “Either outsmart her,” he said, “or learn to put up with her and even to please her.”

Peter smiled back. “Good advice,” he said.

“And settle down with Sophie,” Margaret said. “You've got a proper job and a home and a car now, and you're both at the right age. This is the right time.”

“It's no good trying to put pressure on Peter, Mrs. Patter,” said Sophie. “It doesn't work.” She looked at Peter. “I should know.”

“No, mother,” said Peter, “I think you might be right. I might actually be ready to settle down.”

“Invite your mother and me to the wedding,” David said with a smile.

“Will do, dad,” said Peter, smiling back. “Will do.” He paused, and then added more seriously. “Remember that if you and mum need to escape from this hell hole, there's always an open door at my place.”

“Okay,” said David.”See you son.” He turned to Sophie. “See you Sophie.”

“See you, Mr. Patter. Mrs. Patter,” said Sophie.

Sophie and Peter started walking to Peter's car. In a low voice, his head bent towards her, Peter said to Sophie, “Do you want to stay at my place tonight?”

“You know what I said, Peter,” said Sophie. “When we're a proper couple and we've sorted out marriage and we're living together, that's when we'll sleep together.”

They got in the car and, with a wave to Peter's parents, they drove off.

Peter and Sophie looked quite content with each other.

Chapter Twenty-One

The next day, Sunday, Peter was alone in his car as he pulled up outside Sir Nevile Grevile's country house. He parked the car, got out, and walked towards the front door. Before he reached it, it opened, and Issie stood there, waiting and smiling.

“I saw you coming, Peter,” she said. She kissed him, and added archly, “If you know what I mean.” She turned. “Come on in. Daddy and Jeffrey are here.”

Peter followed her into the house, closing the heavy front door behind him. They walked through the large hallway and along to the drawing room. Entering the room, Peter saw Jeffrey and Sir Nevile sitting opposite each other in leather armchairs on either side of a low coffee table. There were another couple of armchairs, empty, next to each man, also facing each other across the table.

Issie and Peter walked over to the two men.

“Here he is, daddy,” Issie said to her father.

Sir Nevile stood up and reached out a hand across the table. Peter shook hands with Sir Nevile.

“Sit down, Peter,” said Sir Nevile. “Good of you to come.” He indicated the leather armchair next to Jeffrey, and then sat down again.

Peter sat down. “Thank you, Sir Nevile,” he said. “It's good to be back in this lovely house of yours again.”

Jeffrey spoke. “Hello, Peter,” he said with a smile. “I wasn't expecting to see you again so soon.”

“Hello, Jeffrey,” said Peter. “How are things going in your new position?”

“Excellently,” said Jeffrey. “I'm enjoying it very much. I feel I shall profit from it a lot.” He paused and looked more serious. “So I can tell you,” he said, “that I don't want anyone or anything to upset my position that I now have in the land of plenty.”

“I'm here to try to ensure that,” said Peter.

Issie spoke to her father. “Another whisky, daddy?” she asked.

“No thanks, darling,” said Sir Nevile.

“Jeffrey,” said Issie, “would you like another one?”

No thank you, Issie, dear. I'm fine,” said Jeffrey.

“You'll join me in one, won't you, Peter?” Issie said, reaching over the back of Peter's armchair and resting her hands on his shoulders.

Peter twisted his head and looked up and smiled. ” Okay, Issie, but just a small one,” he said.

Issie smiled down at him. “I'm not driving,” she said, “so I'm going to have a large one.”

She went over to the sideboard where the drinks were kept and poured out a couple of whiskies, one even more generous than the other.

“So, Peter,” said Sir Nevile, “you think Helga Sprott, your recently appointed boss, has found out about Issie being on her department's payroll?”

“I don't see how there can be any other explanation for her coming out with the name Isabel Grevile and suggesting I carry out an inspection of her work,” said Peter. “She was very serious, and she was probing me as to if I knew this Isabel Grevile, whether I knew if you had children or not, and what the name of your wife is. I said I knew the name of Lady Victoria, your wife, but I pleaded ignorance as to whether you had children.”

Sir Grevile took a sip of his whisky. “At least that helps buy us a little time,” he said.

Issie came over and put a half-full glass of whisky on the table in front of Peter. She then went and sat down in the armchair next to her father and started sipping from her even fuller glass. Peter looked at her in a vaguely amused way, picked up his whisky, and took a sip of it.

“There are two questions,” said Sir Nevile. “What is she going to do, and what are we going to do?”

“The worst thing would be if she brought all this out in the open,” said Jeffrey. “It would damage all of us.”

“Agreed,” said Sir Nevile. “So either she mustn't bring our little act of generosity for my daughter out in the open …” He turned and smiled at his daughter and patted her knee. She smiled back at him. Sir Nevile turned back to Jeffrey and Peter. ”… or,” he continued, “we must ensure that there is simply nothing for her to bring out in the open.”

“Or of course we could simply make it physically impossible for her to come out with anything,” Jeffrey said rather darkly, in a deep but quiet voice.”

“Jeffrey!” exclaimed Sir Nevile, frowning at his friend. “You know that sort of thing is only a last resort.”

“Could we transfer Issie to another department?” said Peter. “Do it straightaway? It won't get rid of the problem of her having been on the payroll of Jeffrey's old department up till now, but at least it will remove her from any of the department's future payroll reports.”

“I think it might be necessary to take her off the public sector payroll altogether,” said Sir Nevile.

“I need an income, daddy,” said Issie.

Sir Nevile looked at her. “I could pay you,” he said.

“Yes,” said Issie, rolling her eyes, “and then every time we have a falling out, you'd stop the money, just like you used to stop my pocket money when I was a little girl if I did something that didn't please you.”

“I could get her transferred to the payroll of my department, Sir Nevile,” said Jeffrey.

Sir Nevile looked at him and smiled. “Thank you, Jeffrey. You're very helpful. I think that's an excellent idea.”

“Perhaps then,” said Peter, “if Helga does start telling people about this non-existent employee called Isabel Grevile who has suddenly gone missing from the payroll of her department, we can just get someone in charge of overall public sector payroll to say to Helga, 'Thank you for mentioning it to us, but the explanation is simply that we recently discovered that for a long time we'd had this person on your department's payroll instead of on her actual department's payroll. We've now corrected the situation. We can assure you, however, that she does exist and is a genuine public sector worker.”

“That might work,” said Sir Nevile. “Indeed I think it might be the best that we can do.” He got to his feet and walked slowly up and down with his whisky in his hand. He stopped and took a sip of his drink. “I know the person in charge of the public sector payroll department,” he said. “In fact I'm very friendly with her. She's always been happy to oblige me in the past, and I'm sure she'll be happy to do what is required on this occasion, if it's needed.” He took another sip of his drink and looked at Peter. “Listen, Peter,” he said. “Keep an eye on Helga, will you? She's a dark cloud looming on the horizon. All of us in this room have something to lose if that woman resolves to try to hurt all or any of us.”

“Yes, of course, Sir Nevile,” said Peter.

Issie got to her feet, still holding her drink. “I think we've got everything sorted out, as much as it can be sorted out,” she said. She took a big sip from her rapidly emptying glass. “Come on, Peter,” she said. “You can come and give me a game of billiards.” She smiled at him. “I'm a real whiz on the table.”

Peter got to his feet and without any resistance let Issie lead him by the hand from the room, remembering at the last moment to turn and nod a silent farewell to Sir Nevile and Jeffrey as he disappeared through the doorway.

Chapter Twenty-Two

On the Monday morning, Peter got to work early and sat in his office, checking through the report he had written on Nick. Shortly after nine o'clock, knocking that Helga would definitely be in her office as she was never one to be late for work, he walked the few steps to her office and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” he heard her say.

He entered her office.

“Morning, Helga,” he said.

“Morning, Peter,” she said, not looking up from the paperwork she was reading through. “Did you have a good weekend?”

It seemed slightly unusual to Peter that she should ask. “Er, yes, thank you.” He approached her desk and put some neatly bound sheets of paper on it. “Here's the report on Nick,” he said.

He turned to leave.

“Sit down, Peter,” said Helga.

Peter stopped, turned back and sat down in a chair so that he was facing Helga across her desk.

Helga stopped working, leant back in her chair, and looked silently at him for several seconds. “Tell me, Peter,” she said. “How did you really manage to pass the Public Sector Entrance Exam?”

Peter shrugged his shoulders. “I took it and I passed it,” he said.

“That simple, was it?” said Helga.

“Yes,” said Peter.

There was a long silence.

Helga picked up the report that Peter had put on her desk. “I'll read through your report on Nick this morning,” she said. She flicked through the pages, but obviously wasn't really looking at them. “Nick interests me,” she said casually.”

“Why?” said Peter.

Helga smiled. “Because I think he has a great future ahead of him,” she said.

Peter was somewhat confused. “But Nick has been doing the same job for years,” he said. “And anyway, there's nowhere to progress to in this department. You're either a Public Sector Inspector or you're the Director of the Department.”

“Or you could be a Public Sector Inspector Inspector,” said Helga.

Now Peter smiled. “Ah,” he said. “Two of us.”

“Who said anything about having two Public Sector Inspector Inspectors?” said Helga.

Peter nodded his head. “I get it,” he said. “More than two. Am I right?”

“You'll find out in due course,” said Helga. She leant forward and rested her elbows on her desk, and her chin on her clasped hands. “I keep an open mind and try to think of all possibilities and eventualities. Don't you, Peter?” She looked at him. “I would if I were you.”

“I'll try to,” said Peter.

“Do,” said Helga. “You wouldn't want to be caught unawares now, would you?”

“No,” said Peter.

Helga sat upright. “You haven't been to the Ministry of Information yet, have you, Peter?”

“No,” said Peter.

“No, I know you haven't,” said Helga. “You see, that's one of the advantages of being well informed, Peter. You know things. It allows you to prepare your defense or your attack, or both. Whatever might be appropriate or necessary. It enables you to achieve what you want to achieve.” She paused, then went on. “So today I've made an appointment for you to meet the Director of the Ministry of Information, Bill Cosby. Here's where you go to meet him.”

She passed a piece of paper across the desk to Peter. He took and briefly looked at what was written on it.

“Be there at eleven,” said Helga. “That'll be all.”

She busied herself with the paperwork on her desk once more.

Peter hesitated, then got to his feet and left the room.

Peter met up with Bill Cosby at the Ministry of Information at exactly eleven o'clock. After they had exchanged pleasantries, Bill said he would show Peter around the department. They entered a big, open plan office. It was full of desks and people. At some of the desks sat people who were staring into computer screens and busily typing away, but at most of the desks sat people who were busily talking into phones, grinning, laughing, looking stern, pretending to be surprised, but almost always gesticulating as they spoke. Some of the staff were even standing up as they talked animatedly into their phones.

The placed buzzed like a busy call center.

“Many thanks for letting me come and have a look at your Ministry, Bill,” said Peter.

“It's my pleasure, Peter,” said Bill. “We're all about openness here and helping people to understand what their government is doing, what it is trying to achieve, and what it has achieved.”

Peter looked around the room. “What are all these people doing?” he asked.

“Communicating, Peter,” said Bill. “Communicating. They're letting rays of light into people's lives. They're illuminating people's minds.”

“Presumably that's because the government wants people to know everything that it's doing.” said Peter. “It wants the people to see that everything about it is completely transparent.”

Bill stopped walking and gave Peter a long, quizzical look. Peter stopped walking.

“Come over here, Peter,” said Bill.

He led Peter over to one side where no one could hear them.

“I was being funny, Peter,” said Bill. “Didn't you realize that? What do you really think the Ministry of Information is about?”

Peter shrugged his shoulders. “I presume it's about imparting information to the people about the government” he said.

“Sort of,” said Bill. “But what sort of information?”

Peter thought for a while. “Facts and figures?” he ventured. “Future plans?”

“If I tell you,” said Bill, “that the Government Department for Statistics has just announced that inflation is two percent, what do you now know?”

“I know that inflation is two percent,” said Peter.

“No, Peter,” said Bill, almost with irritation, “you don't. What you know is that inflation is anything but two percent.” He went silent for a moment, then said, “If I tell you that government borrowing will be going down next year, what do you know?”

Peter hesitated. “Do I know that government borrowing will be going up next year?” he said tentatively.

Bill laughed. “That's a bit cynical, Peter,” he said. “I'm ashamed of you.” He paused. “No, we merely know that it is highly unlikely that government borrowing will be going down next year.” He thought briefly. “If I tell you,” he said, “that I don't cheat on my wife, what do you know?”

Peter wasn't sure what to say.

Bill laughed again. “What you know,” he said, “is that I don't cheat on my wife.” He put a friendly hand on one of Peter's shoulders. “Peter,” he said, “I'm paid to tell lies on behalf of the government. Outside that, I'm as honest and straightforward a man as you'll find.” He took his hand away. “Listen, if I found anyone in this office telling the truth during work hours, I'd sack them on the spot.” He looked at Peter. “Do you know what this department's unofficial name is, Peter?”

“No,” said Peter.

“The Department of Propaganda,” said Bill. “Our job is to make people believe what the government wants them to believe. Our job is to deny and contradict any truths that come out. That is if they are truths that the government doesn't want known.”

“But aren't the media ultimately going to find out the truth and reveal it?” said Peter. “The truth will out, as they say.”

“Then they're wrong, aren't they?” laughed Bill. “What do you think the media is all about, Peter?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on, “I'll give you a clue. It's the same as what the public sector is essentially about.”

“I thought the media existed to give us information,” said Peter.

“Such as that Sharon Barron's tit implants imploded, do you mean?” said Bill. “Or that the star of Digglesby Bigglesby has just bought a new house in Hollywood, maybe? Or giving us a vegetarian dish of the day that we can make for less than the price of a pocket of fluff?” He shook his head. “No, Peter, the media exists so people can have jobs and get incomes for doing what is unnecessary, or what may even be bad for other people. Media people talk worthless crap and imparting information that is of no use to its receivers, and is likely to be wrong anyway.” He grinned at Peter. “Come on, mate. I'll take you out for a few beers. I always reckon when I've done a morning's work I've done a days work. You can phone your boss Helga and tell her you'll be busy all afternoon looking at every aspect of the Ministry of Information in fine detail - through the bottom of a glass. Come on.”

Bill led the way out of the office and out of the department, and Peter followed obediently behind him with a bemused and not at all unhappy look on his face.

Back at Peter's own department, Nick was just entering Helga's office.

“Take a seat, Nick,” said Helga, smiling warmly. She stood up and came round her desk and shook Nick's hand. “How are you?” she said as she guided him to the chair facing her desk. When Nick was seated, she went back to her side of the desk and sat down again.

“I'm fine, thank you, Helga,” said Nick. “What was it you wanted to see me about?”

Helga looked at Nick in a warm and friendly way for a few seconds. Then she said, “Nick, how well do you know Peter Patter?”

Nick hesitated. “He's my friend,” he said. “We went to school together.”

“But how close are you and he?” said Helga.

Nick shrugged his shoulders. “Not madly close, I suppose,” he admitted. Then he added, “But that's probably because he's spent so much time abroad.”

Helga nodded her head. “Was he doing anything relevant to the job that he managed to land in this department?” she asked.

Nick knew he couldn't give a positive answer, so he stayed silent.

Helga smiled. “Do you feel,” she said, “that he deserves the job he now has, Nick? Do you feel that he deserves to be above you, inspecting your work, even though he's barely had time to get his feet under the table? Do you feel he deserves to be earning an awful lot more than you, even though you've been here for years and he has only just arrived?”

Nick hesitated, and then said, “Obviously I wish him all the best in life and I'm happy for him.”

“Are you, Nick?” said Helga. “You know I don't believe this department needs an inspector to inspect our inspectors, but if we had to have a Public Sector Inspector Inspector, do you know who I would choose for the position?”

“No,” said Nick. “Who would you choose?”

Helga leant forward and put both her hands on the desk, but with her palms facing upwards. “Do you see what I have in my hands, Nick?” she asked.

Nick shook his head. “I don't see anything,” he said.

Helga held up her right hand. “In this hand I have a carrot,” she said. She held up her left hand. “In this hand I have a stick.” Helga took her hands off the desk and leant back in her chair. “What is the carrot?” she asked.

Nick shrugged his shoulders. “I have no idea,” he said.

“The carrot, Nick,” said Helga, “is that if I had to have a Public Sector Inspector Inspector in this department, it wouldn't be your friend Peter, it would be you.”

“That's gratifying to know,” said Nick, “but presumably it's too late to change the situation.”

“Not necessarily,” said Helga. She looked intensely at Nick. “Now, Nick, what about the stick? What do you think the stick is?”

“I have no idea,” said Nick, “but I guess it's going to be something I won't like.”

“I have no idea whether you'll like it,” said Helga. “Perhaps you value your freedom and would like your life to change. She paused, and then said, “What's the name of this department, Nick?”

“The Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction,” said Nick.

“Efficiency and cost reduction, Nick,” Helga repeated. “We must practice what we preach.” She tapped her fingers on the desk. “Nick,” she went on, “I need to lose three Inspectors from this department, because your friend Peter costs as much as three Inspectors, and I need to recoup that extra expenditure.” She looked at Nick to see if he was grasping her meaning. “That's right, Nick. Peter's salary is three times yours.” She waited for several seconds. “Now, Nick, wouldn't it be unfortunate if one of the three Inspectors I need to get rid of turned out to be you?”

“It would indeed be unfortunate,” Nick said coolly.

“That is the stick that I warned you about,” said Helga. Helga put her elbows on the desk and leant forward. “Which do you prefer, Nick?” she said. “The carrot or the stick?”

“Probably the carrot, I would say,” said Nick.

Helga leant back in her chair. “Excellent!” she said. “So you fancy being this department's Public Sector Inspector Inspector at three times your current salary, do you? That is what I fancy too.” She smiled warmly. “I'll make it happen right away. I'll …” Suddenly she stopped. “Oh no!” she exclaimed.

“What?” said Nick.

“To do that I need to fire your friend Peter,” said Helga, “and to fire your friend Peter I need grounds. And I want it in writing.” Helga toyed with a pen on her desk. “Nick,” she said, “I want you to tell me how Peter did so well in his Public Sector Entrance Exam. That's what allowed him to get into this department so that Jeffrey Coller could create the position of Public Sector Inspector Inspector for him.”

“Helga,” said Nick, “I'm not sure I can grass on my friend Peter. And his cheating involves me too, you know. I was part of it.”

Helga looked at Nick sternly and raised an eyebrow. “Cheating?” she said. She smiled. “Carrot or stick, Nick. It's your choice.”

“Helga, I …”

“Go!” snapped Helga. “If I don't have something in writing on my desk within the hour giving me justification for getting rid of Peter, it'll be you who'll be losing his job.”

Helga started busying herself with the paperwork on her desk. Nick looked at her, waiting to see what she would do or say next, but when it was obvious nothing else would be forthcoming, he stood up and silently left the room.

Within an hour, Nick came back into Helga's office. Helga ignored him. Nick put on her desk a densely-typed letter, signed at the bottom. Then he turned and left the room.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The following morning, Helga called Peter into her office. When he walked in, she was standing by the window, looking out, with her back to him.

Peter hesitated. “Morning, Helga,” he said at last. “How are you?”

“I'm fine, Peter,” said Helga over her shoulder. “And you?”

“Fine,” said Peter.

Helga turned round. “How did you get to work this morning, Peter?” she asked.

“I drove in,” said Peter. “Same as I usually do.”

“What car do you drive, Peter?” Helga asked.

“It's a Mercedes,” said Peter. “Not a big one. Just one of those a couple of classes up from the bottom ones.”

Helga smiled. She seemed friendly. “I've got my car on a sort of leasing contract,” she said conversationally.” Are you the same, or did you buy yours outright?”

“I …” Peter went silent. He wasn't sure what to say.

“It isn't yours and you're not leasing it,” said Helga, suddenly not so friendly. “That's because it's a government car. It's public sector property.” She shook her head. “What Jeffrey was thinking when he got it for you to use, I've no idea. I'm going to look into it though. In the meantime, however, you can continue to use it, but only for work. You can't use it for private business, and you can't use it for driving between work and your home.” She gazed at Peter with hard eyes. “Understand?”

“Does that mean I can't use it to drive home tonight?” said Peter.

Helga gave a tight-lipped smile. “You're quick on the uptake, Peter. You got it in one.”

“Well,” said Peter, “if that's what you want.”

“Yes, it is,” said Helga. “And talking about your home, how did that come about? You know you're living in one of our security service's safe houses?”

“I didn't know that,” said Peter, genuinely surprised. “Jeffrey just found me the place. I didn't ask any questions. I was just grateful.”

“I bet you were,” said Helga, with something of a sneer. “I'd be grateful if someone handed me a place to live in for free. You're not even paying any rent, are you?”

“Jeffrey never asked me to pay any,” said Peter.

“Why should he?” said Helga “It's not his property. It's no skin off his nose if you pay nothing for living in what would otherwise be an expensive property to rent.” She sat down at her desk. “It can't go on, Peter,” she said. She gave him a hard look. “You and I both know you don't deserve to be in this department or even in the public sector at all, but having got in, you've been given free use of public sector property by this department's previous director, and you're receiving a salary that is completely out of proportion to your experience and your ability.” She looked at him. “As I say, Peter, it can't go on.” She paused, and then said quietly, “And it won't.”

“What are you going to do about the situation?” said Peter.

“That,” said Helga, “is what I'm trying to decide.” She looked at the paperwork on her desk, and then looked up again. “That report you did on your friend Nick, by the way, was barely acceptable. You just haven't got the hang of writing reports. And the language you use is all wrong. I could actually understand it. Don't you realize that here in the public sector we deliberately write convoluted gobbledygook that is so incomprehensible as to be either meaningless or it is able to take any meaning anyone wants to attribute to it?” She shook her head almost sadly. “You just can't get the hang of what we're about, can you?”

“It certainly isn't about serving the public, is it?” said Peter.

Helga said nothing.

“I'm doing my best,” said Peter.

“Firstly,” said Helga, “your best would appear not to be good enough. Secondly, of course we're not here to serve the public. We're here to serve ourselves. We create work and do unnecessary things so as to justify our salaries and our pensions. Perhaps ten percent of what we do needs to be done and is worthwhile, but the rest of it is just creating and maintaining a public sector for the sake of those of us who are in the public sector.”

Helga rifled through the pile of papers on her desk and pulled out a single sheet. She held it out to Peter. He came over and took it off her.

“Until I decide what I'm going to do about you,” she said, “you might as well keep on working. I've made an appointment for you to meet the Director of the Department of Department Outsourcing. Be at his department at two this afternoon. You can spend this morning re-reading through the guidelines on how to write an Inspector inspection report, and then you can rewrite your report on your friend, Nick.”

“Okay,” said Peter, almost gratefully, I'll get on with doing that.” He turned to leave.

“Peter,” said Helga.

He turned back to her.

“When I leave here this evening,” she said, “I want to see that Mercedes you're using parked up safely in the car park. You are not to use it to drive home in. Understand?”

“Yes,” said Peter. “Don't worry. I'll get home under my own steam.”

He left the office.

That afternoon Peter entered another office. This was the office of the Director of the Department of Department Outsourcing. It was an old-fashioned and comfortable and cozy room, like the study in a country house

The Director, having come down to meet Peter at reception, led the way into the room, with Peter following behind him.

“Close the door after you, Peter,” the Director said. “Take a seat on the sofa over there.” He stopped. “By the way,” he said, “call me Simon.” He carried on over to a drinks cabinet.

Peter sat down on the dark brown leather Chesterfield that Simon had indicated. The sofa had a low antique table in front of it.

Simon poured out a couple of glasses of port from a decanter. Picking up the glasses, he walked over to Peter, handed him one of the glasses, then he sat down next to Peter.

“I've just had the most terrific lunch,” said Simon, “but I had to dash back to meet you, so I didn't have time to finish off the meal with my customary glass of port, so here it is now. Chin chin.”

Simon sipped at his post-lunch tipple. Peter did likewise.

“I'm sorry to have made you rush, Simon,” said Peter. “It was my boss, Helga, who made the appointment. If I'd made it, I'd have made it for a bit later to give you time to have a proper lunch.”

“So it's the notorious Helga Sprott that we should blame, is it?” said Simon. “Philistine! I hear that often she doesn't even bother with lunch.” He looked at Peter. “She takes her work too seriously, Simon. That's her problem.” He smiled. “Now, Jeffrey Coller, he's much more civilized.”

“Yes, I miss having Jeffrey as my boss,” said Peter.

Simon nodded his head. Then he said, “I hear on the grapevine that Helga is out to get you, Peter. Or more accurately, she's out to get rid of you.”

Peter forced a smile. “I believe you're right,” he said, “but there's nothing I can do to stop her.” He took another sip of his port. “Anyway,” he said, “I've had an interesting time in this job of mine. At least I've paid off my credit card debts. And I've enjoyed seeing a bit of what goes on in the public sector.”

“Good,” said Simon. “Hopefully you've learnt that it largely exists for its own benefit and not for the public's. In fact we only benefit the public to the extent necessary for us to keep our jobs.” He finished off his glass of port. “Anyway, Peter, today you're here to find out what my department does. Quite frankly I can tell you that in a matter of seconds.” He stood up. “Another port?”

Peter finished his drink and handed Simon his glass. “Yes, please,” he said.

Simon went over to the drinks cabinet and busied himself with refilling the glasses. “So, Peter,” he said while he did that, “you know I'm Simon Gray, head of department, and my department is …?” He waited.

“The Department of Department Outsourcing,” said Peter.

“That's right,” said Simon. He came back over to the sofa, sat down, and handed Peter his glass. The two men quietly sipped their drinks.

“So,” said Simon, “what do you think we do?”

“You outsource some of the work that various public sector departments do so that the work is done by the private sector rather than the public sector,” said Peter.

“Almost,” said Simon, “but not quite. We actually look to outsource complete departments from the public sector to the private sector.”

“And the reason for doing that is …?” said Simon.

“It reduces the headcount in the public sector,” said Simon, “so government ministers are able to go to the public and say, look, we're employing fewer people in the public sector, we're working hard to save you money.”

“But surely the outsourced department still has to be paid for with the public's money?” said Peter.

“Of course,” said Simon. “Sometimes the department will cost less than it cost when in the public sector, sometimes it will cost more. Ideally it will cost less. But you see, Peter, not only does it reduce the number of people directly employed in the public sector, but it also offloads the liability for any redundancy payments and pensions onto the private firm that has taken over the department. All the government has to do is write out a check to the firm once a month, and that is the full extent of the government's liability. So you can see why outsourcing, as well as entering into various types of public-private initiatives, is so popular with the government.”

“I can see there are advantages over employing people directly in the public sector,” said Peter, “but I bet in practice it doesn't save money.”

“Who cares?,” said Simon, shrugging his shoulders. “The government doesn't really want to reduce the amount of money it spends. It can always borrow and print more. It just wants to appear to be giving the plebs what they want in the simplest, most convenient way possible.”

Simon finished his drink. “Let's have some more of this excellent port,” he said.

Peter finished his drink and gave his glass to Simon, who stood up and went over to the drinks cabinet.

“You know, Peter,” Simon said, “I often wish your department could be outsourced. It's only small. You only have between two and three hundred people in it. But outsourcing it would give it an air of independence, as though the public sector was being watched over and vetted by impartial outsiders rather than just by another load of public sector employees.”

Peter laughed. “I'll mention it to Helga,” he said.

“Don't bother,” said Simon. “We can guess where she stands on outsourcing. I suspect that if she had her way, everyone in the country would be employed in the public sector.” He looked at Peter. “Except you, of course.”

He came back over to the sofa, sat down and gave Peter his newly-filled glass. “Do you play backgammon, Peter?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Peter.

“Excellent,” said Simon. “We'll have a few games until it's time for you to head back and face the dragon.”

“Okay,” said Peter.

Simon put down his glass, reached under the table in front of the sofa, and pulled out an expensive-looking backgammon set.

An afternoon that had started out pleasantly was about to become even pleasanter.

On getting back to his own department at the end of the afternoon, Peter actually managed to avoid Helga. Instead he went straight to Nick and asked his friend to give him a lift home, explaining that Helga had stopped him from using the Mercedes other than for work duties.

Simon seemed almost reluctant, and somehow uncomfortable, but after some hesitation he agreed to take Peter home.

They went down to Nick's car and set off from their workplace.

“Thanks for giving me a lift home, Nick,” said Peter happily. “Much appreciated.

“No problem,” said Nick. He frowned, and then added, “Have you been drinking?”

“Yes,” said Peter. “I had a convivial afternoon with the head of the department I had to go and see today.” He was silent for a moment, and then he said, “Helga's really got in for me.” He looked out of the window on his side of the car. “Not that I blame her. I landed this job I've got under false pretences. Also Jeffrey really shouldn't have arranged for me to have free use of a house and car. He looked straight ahead. “Now either I'll have to buy my own car or I'll have to use public transport.”

Nick said nothing.

Peter looked at his friend. “You're not very talkative this evening, Nick. Bad day at work?”

“Same as usual,” said Nick. “I'm just feeling a bit tired, that's all. I think I'll go to bed early tonight.”

“Right,” said Peter. “I might do the same. I'm worried about what Helga's going to do next. I'm worried about my car, my house, my job. I'm sure she wants to take everything from me. And what is she going to do about Issie once she becomes certain about what's been going on and she knows for certain that Issie's dad is definitely Sir Nevile?” He shook his head. “Helga's got the power to cause a right old scandal.”

“People who do bad things often suffer bad consequences,” said Nick.

Peter looked at him, but Nick stayed focused on the road ahead.

“Perhaps you should jump before you're pushed, Peter,” Nick said. “Put a bit of distance between you and this whole situation. Go abroad again.”

“I couldn't afford to,” said Peter. “Anyway I'm worried about my parents. I need to stay here and do something to help them.” He paused. “No, jumping before I'm pushed isn't an option. I've got to make things work out so that I come out alright, and my parents do too.”

Nick shrugged his shoulders. “It was just a thought,” he said.

They pulled up outside Peter's house. Peter got out of the car.

“Thanks for the lift,” said Peter. “Do you want to come in for a drink? I've got some beer in the fridge.”

“No, thanks,” said Nick. “I just want to get home.”

“Okay,” said Peter. “I'll see you at work tomorrow. I'll go in on public transport. Bye.”

“Bye,” said Nick. And he drove off.

Peter let himself into his house.

He was going to do a lot of thinking that evening.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Helga was working at her desk. There was a knock on the door.

“Yes,” Helga called out, not looking up.

The door opened and Peter stuck his head round the door. “Morning, Helga,” he said. “Just a small thing. I can't see my car in the car park where I left it last night.”

Helga looked up. “Your car?” she said.

“Yes,” said Peter. “The black Mercedes. I parked it in the car park last night like you told me to.”

“Oh yes,” said Helga, as if some realization had just dawned on her. “The black Mercedes that belongs to us.” She smiled. “I suddenly thought you'd gone out and used your own money to buy a car of your own. I'm afraid that car, which is government property, has been taken back by the people from whom it should never have been taken. I really don't know what Jeffrey Coller was thinking when he arranged for you to have the use of it, and I don't know what the people who are responsible for it were thinking of when they did what Jeffrey wanted. Never mind. It's all been sorted out now.” She gazed at Peter. “You do have your own car, don't you, Peter?” she asked sweetly.

“No, I haven't got one,” said Peter.

“Oh dear!” said Helga. “Then you won't be able to go anywhere, will you? You'll just have to work here.” She rearranged some of the papers on her desk. “If you do get a car though,” she said, “you can visit other departments.” She smiled. “You'll be reimbursed for any travel you do as part of your work duties.” She leant back in her chair. “Did you find the Department of Department Outsourcing interesting yesterday?” she asked.

Peter smiled. “Yes,” he said, “and the Director, Simon Gray, is a very pleasant and helpful guy. Very affable. Quite the congenial host in fact.”

Helga raised an eyebrow. “Good,” she said. “So long as you learnt something as well as having a good time, that's what really matters.” She picked up some paperwork. “Now, Peter,” she went on, “you are, after all, this department's Inspector Inspector, so here are a couple of my Inspectors that I want you to inspect and write reports on.”

She held out some papers. Peter came into the room and took them from her.

“Do the inspections now,” said Helga. “It's obvious you need a lot more practice on writing reports, so that is what I intend to give you. This time try to do them properly.” She started to read some of the paperwork on her desk. “Bring the reports to me before we finish work today,” she said without looking up.

“Yes, Helga,” said Peter obediently.

He left the office, closing the door quietly behind him.

Having retreated to his office, Peter threw the papers Helga had given him onto his desk and picked up the handset of the landline phone that sat there.

He dialed a number. Someone answered. “Hi, Sophie,” he said into the mouthpiece. “You'll never guess what. My boss has taken my car off me. You know, that lovely little black Mercedes. Now I'm having to use public transport to get to and from work. And I can't go off visiting any other public sector departments until I get my own set of wheels. Mind you, I think I've seen most of the departments that are of any interest anyway. Listen, I was wondering. Can you run me over to see my parents this Friday evening?” There was a pause, then, “Yes, let's do that. I'll pick some flowers up on the way, and I'll get a bottle of something for dad.” Another pause. “Okay, you pick me up at my place at seven. See you.”

He put the phone down. He thought for a moment, and then he sat down at his desk and started to read through the papers that Helga had given him.

On Friday evening, Sophie picked him up as she had said she would and they drove over to his parents' place. David answered the door when they arrived.

“Hello, dad,” said Peter.

Sophie said, “Hello, Mr. Patter.”

“Hello, Peter. Sophie,” said David, clearly pleased to see them. “Come in. Your mother's rustled up some food.”

Peter and Sophie went into the house and David closed the front door behind them.

“Here's some drink to go with the food, dad,” said Peter, handing David a bottle of wine.

“Why, thank you, Peter,” said David. “That's very nice of you.”

The three of them went along to the back room where there was a small, simple dining table laid out with cold food, plates, cutlery and glasses. Margaret was just putting some more food down on the table.

“Hello, mum,” said Peter.

Sophie spoke. “Hello, Mrs. Patter. Here are some flowers for you.”

She handed a bunch of mixed flowers to Peter's mother.

“Thank you, my dear,” said Margaret, giving Sophie a little kiss on the cheek. “They're lovely. That's very kind of you.”

“They're from both of us,” said Sophie.

Margaret looked at Sophie, then Peter, then back to Sophie again. “Are you a proper couple now?” she said with a little smile.

Sophie and Peter looked at each other, and then Sophie turned back to Margaret and she said, also smiling, “Almost.”

David put his hands on his son's shoulders. “Peter just needs that little push to tip him over the edge to make him do the right thing.” He looked into his son's eyes. “Everything will be alright, Peter. There's nothing to be afraid of. Marriage isn't that terrible.” He looked over at Margaret. “Look at your mother and me.”

“Yes, dad,” said Peter, “I suspect you're right.” He turned to Sophie. “We'll have to do something at some point, won't we?”

“That's what I've been saying for a long time, Peter,” said Sophie, “and the moment you're ready and absolutely sure, we'll do it.”

Margaret spoke. “I'll go and put these flowers in a vase.” She left the room, appreciatively smelling the scent of the flowers.

“Sit down, you two,” David said to Peter and Sophie. “Tuck in. Margaret won't mind.”

The three of them sat down at the table and David opened Peter and Sophie's wine and poured it out into four glasses. There was another bottle of wine on the table. They start helping themselves to food just as Margaret came back into the room with the flowers in a vase. She carefully placed the vase on an old, tatty sideboard. Then she sat down at the table with the others and started helping herself to feed as well.

“How are things in your high-powered job, Peter?” David asked as he began to eat. “Are you scaling ever greater heights?”

“Not quite,” said David. “In fact my boss has got it in for me, and I have a feeling my good fortune might not last much longer. I sense everything is quietly unraveling around me. You know she took the car off me that my previous boss gave me to use?”

“Really?” said David. “Can she do that?”

“Turns out I shouldn't have had the car in the first place,” said David. “Actually I pretty much knew that anyway. But I suspect taking the car away is just her first shot across my bows. I'm on my guard as to what she might do next.”

“Well, Peter,” said Margaret, “if everything collapses around you, you can always come and stay here with us.”

“I wouldn't wish that on anyone,” David said glumly to his wife. He turned back to Peter. “You say your boss has got it in for you. The people round here have really got it in for us. They've taken a real dislike to us. Yet they don't even know us.” He took a bite of food. “We've asked the council if they can find us somewhere else to live.”

“You know, dad,” said Peter, looking closely at his father, “it almost sounds as though you're resigned to this sort of life. What's happened to the old 'get up and go' you used to have? Where's the determination gone to get back to the sort of life you used to have?”

David put down his knife and fork and looked at his son. “Your mother and I are tired, Peter,” he said. “We're not young any more, and this financial calamity has taken it out of us. I don't think we have the strength to bounce back from this one.” He picked up his knife and fork and started eating again. “Perhaps we just have to resign ourselves to make the most of the way things are.”

“Nonsense,” said Peter.” You can't live like this. You can't be amongst the sort of people who live around here. You deserve better than this. You and mother always deserved the best.” He paused. “You still do.”

“I think, my dear,” Margaret said to her son, “that it's up to you now to make something dramatic happen.”

“Yes, Peter,” said David. “The old must pass the baton to the young.”

Sophie reached out and touched Peter on the arm. She looked into his eyes. “I'll help you in any way I can, Peter,” she said. “We must work together. We must look after each other.” She looked at Margaret and David. “All of us.”

Peter was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Yes, you're right. I just hope I can come up with something.” He played with his food distractedly. “First I must see what my boss has in store for me. I need to know whether I have a secure future in the public sector or whether she's going to make my life unbearably difficult or even get me kicked me out of the public sector altogether.”

“Time will tell what she has in store for you,” said David.

“Whatever it is, I'd rather find out sooner rather than later,” said Peter.

“Whatever happens, I'm sure you'll cope, dear,” said his mother.

Sophie stroked the back of Peter's head. “We'll manage, Peter,” she said.

Peter suddenly looked determined. “I want to do more than manage,” he said. “I want to win.” Then his face softened. He leant over and kissed Sophie tenderly on the lips. “You're an angel, Sophie,” he said. “I appreciate you more than you realize.”

Sophie smiled. “Perhaps one day you'll prove it,” she said.

Peter smiled back. “One day I will,” he said.

He reached out for his glass and took a sip of wine. Looking at the others around the table, still with the smile on his lips, he said, “Let's see what Monday brings.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

On Monday morning, Helga was at her desk as usual. Unusually, however, there was also a large, sturdy man dressed in a black suit and wearing dark glasses sitting in the room with her. He sat silently in a corner. Obviously he was not much given to conversation.

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” said Helga.

Peter entered.

“Ah, Peter, there you are,” said Helga.

“Yes,” said Peter. He looked at the man in the corner. “Here I am.” He sat down on the chair in front of Helga's desk.

“There's no need to sit down,” said Helga.

Peter stood up again.

Helga indicated the brooding man in the corner. “This is agent Wilkins from the D.I.S.,” she said.

“The Domestic Intelligence Services,” agent Wilkins said helpfully.

“He'd like to have a word with you, Peter,” Helga said with a smile.

Agent Wilkins stood up and approached Peter. “You're living in one of our safe houses, Mr. Patter,” he said. “Why are you living in one of our safe houses?”

“I … I …,” stammered Peter. He gathered his thoughts. “Jeffrey Coller, the previous head of this department, found the place for me and said I could live there,” he blurted out.

“Do you have that in writing?” agent Wilkins asked.

“No,” said Peter. “There was never anything put in writing.”

“Then I only have your word that what you say is true,” said agent Wilkins.

“It is true,” protested Peter. “I was having to sleep on my friend Nick's sofa. Nick Jenks. He works here. Helga knows him. I told Jeffrey I needed to look for somewhere to live and he helped me out by finding me that house I'm in now.”

Agent Wilkins smiled. “Actually I know all that already,” he said. “But Jeffrey Coller over-stepped the mark by pulling strings to help you out. You can't stay there, you know. You'll have to get out.”

Peter looked at agent Wilkins. “When do I have to leave by?” he asked.

Agent Wilkins looked at his watch. Then he looked back at Peter. “Do you have much stuff there?”

“Only clothes really,” said Peter. “I was beginning to buy a few things for the place. Stuff for the kitchen. That sort of thing. But no, really it's just my clothes I'd need to take.”

“Good,” said agent Wilkins. “Let's go then. By lunchtime there should be no sign that you've ever been there.” He turned to Helga. “We'll be on our way then, if that's alright with you, Miss Sprott.”

“Yes, of course,” said Helga. She turned to Peter. “Take the rest of the day off, Peter. You'll need to shift your stuff somewhere, and you'll obviously need to sort out somewhere new to stay.”

“Okay,” said Peter. He got to his feet. He and agent Wilkins moved towards the door.

“I hope you've enjoyed using government property, Peter,” said Helga, “but I think it's best that we stop it now. Otherwise it can become strangely addictive.”

Peter turned to her and smiled, but said nothing. Then he turned back and followed agent Wilkins out of the room.

A couple of hours later, Peter was standing outside what had been his home. He had three full bin bags and his old rucksack by his feet. Agent Wilkins came out of the house, shut the front door, pocketed the key and walked over to Peter.

“You didn't have any other keys cut, did you?” he asked.

“No,” said Peter.

“It doesn't make any difference anyway,” said agent Wilkins. “We change the locks every time someone stays here.” He held out a hand. “I'll wish you well then. Have you got someone to pick you up? Have you sorted out somewhere else to stay?”

Peter shook agent Wilkins's hand. “I'm just going to phone someone,” he said. “I'll be alright.”

“Good,” said agent Wilkins. “I'll be on my way then.”

He walked over to a car which was actually the black Mercedes that Peter had been driving up until recently. He got into it and fired up the engine. Then he wound down the window.

“It's not my job to give you advice,” he said, “but if I were you I'd start looking around for a new job.”

He wound up the window, and, without a further glance at Peter, drove away.

Peter watched him go. When agent Wilkins was out of sight, Peter took his mobile phone out of a pocket and dialed a number. He held the phone to his ear and waited. Eventually there was a voice at the other end of the line.

“Sophie,” said Peter, “it's me.” He hesitated. Then he said, “I really need you.”

That evening, with the curtains closed against the dark outside, Peter and Sophie lay cuddled up together on the sofa in the sitting room of Sophie's cozy, feminine apartment. In a corner were Peter's three bin bags and his rucksack.

“So is this the great unraveling you were worried about?” said Sophie.

I fear it is,” said Peter. “Helga's taken my car off me, and my house, so the logical next step is to take my job off me. And I can't say I'd disagree with her. I should never been given the job in the first place. In fact I should never have been allowed into the public sector.”

“Did I ever tell you that really I work in the public sector?” said Sophie. “Well, maybe not in it, but for it.”

“I thought you worked for a private company,” said Peter.

“I do,” said Sophie, “but all our contracts are with local councils and with government departments. We're what you might call the private public sector.”

“So you work for a private business but all your money comes from contracts with the public sector?” said Peter.

Sophie smiled. “That's right,” she said. “It gives us big, dependable money and makes my job secure.”

“That,” said Peter, “is the sort of thing that Simon Gray, the head of the Department for Departmental Outsourcing, was telling me about. It doesn't reduce the government's expenditure, but it just makes it look as though the government isn't actually employing the unacceptably high number of people that it really does employ.”

“I don't care,” said Sophie. “So long as I get paid, I don't care where the money comes from.” She kissed Peter and stroked his hair. “Just think,” she said. “If you lose your job, you'll be able to grow your hair again.”

“Yes,” laughed Peter. “The other consolation would be that I wouldn't have to wear a suit every day.”

But you'd still need to find a way of earning a living,” Sophie pointed out. “You haven't got your parents to fall back on now. In fact you need to find a way of supporting them and giving them a decent standard of living and somewhere nice to live.”

“I'll do it,” said Peter, with some determination in his voice. “I don't know how, but I'll do it.”

“I know you will,” said Sophie tenderly. She kissed Peter again. “Come on,” she said. “It's getting late, and we've both got to go to work tomorrow.” She got up off the sofa. “Let's go to bed.”

Peter got up and allowed Sophie to lead him towards her bedroom. She stopped and turned to him.

“Are we a couple now, Peter?” she asked. Her tone was serious.

“Yes,” said Peter. “We're a couple.”

“You're not going to run off?” said Sophie.

“No,” said Peter. “Never again. We're together now, for the long term.”

Sophie kissed Peter yet again, and carried on leading him to her bedroom.

Or rather, their bedroom.

Chapter Twenty-Six

The following afternoon at work, Peter got called to Helga's office. When he entered, he saw not only Helga sitting at her desk, but Nick sitting in a chair facing the desk. Beside Nick there was another chair.

“Afternoon, Helga,” said Peter, Sounding breezy. “You wanted to see me?” He turned to Nick. “Hello, Nick,” he said. “Any particular reason why you're here?”

“I haven't been told yet,” said Nick.

“Sit down, Peter,” said Helga, indicating the chair next to Nick. “I hope you had a good lunch.”

Peter sat down. “Yes,” he said. “It was a mixture of both work and pleasure. The perfect sort of lunch.”

“If there was pleasure involved,” said Helga, “I hope you didn't charge it to your public sector credit card.”

“I didn't have to,” said Peter, smiling. “The person I was lunching with paid for the meal.”

“That's alright then,” said Helga. “Now,” she went on, “you two are no doubt wondering why I've called both of you into my office together. It's because what I'm going to say affects you both equally. You've committed a misdemeanor together, so you will both hang together.” She smiled. “Figuratively speaking, of course. You, Peter, can regard the lunch you've just had as your last meal before execution.”

“I rather suspected some bad news was lurking over the horizon,” said Peter, but with what seemed like a degree of complacency. He looked at Helga. “So this is it then, is it, Helga?” he said.

Nick interrupted. “But surely there's good news for me, Helga,” he said.

“Ah, Nick,” said Helga with a disarming smile. “You are, I believe, expecting a promotion.

Nick shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Well, yes,” he said. “I was rather. I did what you wanted. Surely I get my reward?”

“Well, yes,” said Helga, “you would get it, but unfortunately you gave me a written admission that you have been a bad boy.”

It was Peter's turn to interrupt. “What exactly is going on?”

Helga held out a piece of paper to him. “Read this,” she said. “As you can see, it was written by your good friend here, Nick Jenks.”

Peter took the piece of paper. It was the letter that Nick had written confirming how he had helped Peter cheat his way into a job in the public sector.”

“Helga!” said Nick. “What are you doing?”

“I,” said Helga, “am being open, honest and above board. You should try it some time.”

Peter read through Nick's admission of their joint wrongdoing. He looked at his friend. “Nick,” he said, “why on earth did you admit to what we did? And why did you put it in writing?”

Helga spoke. “I'll tell you why, Peter,” she said. “Your friend here is quite easy to manipulate. I told him on the one hand that if he didn't tell me how you tricked your way into the public sector I would make him redundant. Quite legitimately, I hasten to add. I have to recoup the money that this department now has to spend paying your salary, Peter. I also told Nick that if he did tell me what I wanted to know, once I had got rid of you, he could have your job.”

Peter shook his head, but then strangely he laughed. “Oh well, Nick,” he said, smiling at his friend. “I guess I'd have done the same in your shoes. Self-preservation on the one hand, and advancement on the other. Really it was a no-brainer to do what you did.”

Nick frowned. “You don't hold it against me?” he asked, seeming confused.

“Of course I do,” said Peter, his smile tightening and his lips narrowing. “Don't expect me to want to be with you much after this.”

Helga spoke again. “Unfortunately, Nick, things aren't going to work out quite as you planned, or indeed as I said they would. You see, Nick, I can't have someone working in this department who is guilty of gross misconduct. So as much as I would like to promote you from being a mere Public Sector Inspector to being a Public Sector Inspector Inspector, I am instead going to have to sack you on the grounds of your own admission of gross misconduct, in the form of stealing the answers to the Public Sector Entrance Exam and then using them to enable your friend Peter here to get into the public sector. So with immediate effect I am terminating your employment here.”

Nick was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Can you do that?”

Helga smiled. “I just did,” she said. She picked up a piece of paper from her desk and handed it to Nick. “Here it is in writing.” She stretched out an open hand. “Give me your public sector credit card,” she said.

Seeming somewhat dazed, Nick dug out his public sector credit card from a pocket and handed it over to Helga.

“Thank you,” said Helga. “You can go and collect any personal things you have at your work station. I've notified security to expect you to leave within about five minutes from now. Hand in your security badge to them.” She leant back in her chair and looked at Nick. “I wish you all the best for the future,” she said.

Nick stood up. He turned to Peter. “Shall I wait for you outside, Peter? I can give you a lift home.”

Peter raised an eyebrow. “You don't even know where my home is now,” he said. “That house Jeffrey let me use was taken off me yesterday.” He smiled. “But don't worry, Nick. I'll make my own way to wherever I'm going.”

Nick nodded his head. “Okay,” he said.

Peter reached out a hand and squeezed one of Nick's arms. “Don't worry, Nick,” he said. “Listen, how about if Sophie and I come round to your place this Friday evening? Seven o'clock? We'll see how you're getting on. Take you out for a drink.”

“That would be nice,” said Nick. “Okay, I'll see you both then. I look forward to it.”

Nick left the room.

Helga looked at Peter for several seconds. “And now I'm afraid it's your turn, Peter,” she said, seemingly with some sadness. “You got this job of yours under false pretences. You cheated. You don't deserve to be here. Indeed you know as well as I do that you shouldn't be in the public sector at all.”

Peter smiled. He seemed surprisingly relaxed. “Oh, I don't know, Helga,” he said. “Actually I think I'm well suited to being in the public sector.”

“Perhaps you are,” said Helga, “but unfortunately we're not going to be able to prove that, in the long term, the medium term, or even the short term. Peter, I'm firing you for gross misconduct.” She handed Peter a piece of paper essentially identical to the one she had handed to Nick. “Here it is in writing. Now, you can gather together any personal things you have in your office and then you must leave. Hand your security badge in on the way out.”

“Can I just make a quick phone call?” Peter asked.

Helga looked annoyed. “Can't you do that after you've left?” she said.

“It's better for both of us if I do it now,” said Peter. He reached over the desk, picked up Helga's internal phone, and dialed a number. After a delay of a couple of seconds, he spoke into the phone. “Hi, Nigel,” he said. “How goes it? Good. Yes, she's done what I expected, so can you come into her office? Thanks.” He put the phone down and then leant back in his chair and looked at Helga with an amused expression on his face.

The office door opened and in walked Nigel Dudley-Farker, the head of the Federated Union of Civil Key Employees of the Realm, and Peter's representative in matters of dispute at work.

“Hi again, Peter,” he said. He smiled at Helga. “Hello Helga,” he said cheerfully. He sat down in the chair where Nick had been sitting. He looked at Helga for a couple of seconds, and then said to her, “I understand you're trying to deprive Peter of his employment.”

“I'm not trying, Mr. Dudley-Farker,” said Helga. “I've just done it.”

“Then you will no doubt have your public sector check book at the ready,” said Nigel.

“What does that mean?” asked Helga.

“You have read Peter's employment contract, haven't you?” Nigel asked in return.

“No,” said Helga, “but it'll just be a standard public sector contract.”

“Not quite,” said Nigel, smiling. “You see, Jeffrey added one or two little extra clauses.”

He handed Helga a copy of Peter's employment contract. As Helga steadily read through it, there was silence in the room. When she had finished, she looked up, first at Peter, then at Nigel. There was an unhappy expression on her face.

“You're quite at liberty to sack Peter,” Nigel said, “but I'm afraid it's going to cost you, or rather the taxpayer, rather a lot of money.” He paused, and then went on, “As your department exists to save the public sector money, Helga, can I make a suggestion to you?”

“If you must,” said Helga.

“You want to get rid of Peter,” said Nigel. “That much we can be certain about.”

Helga nodded her head. “Carry on,” she said.

“I suggest then,” said Nigel, “that you pension him off. Do it on the grounds of ill health and consequent necessary early retirement, as is the usual way in these situations. As Director of this department you have the power to do that. Then you won't have any dismissal and expensive payoff to explain. Rather Peter's retirement will just get buried amongst all the other retirements that happen every day in the public sector.” He paused. “You know that you and I together can arrange that.”

Helga thought silently.

Nigel leant across the desk and placed both his hands palm upwards on it. “Do you see what I have in my hands, Helga?” he asked in a gentle voice.

Helga frowned and shook her head. “I don't see anything,” she said.

“In this hand,” said Nigel, holding up his left hand, “I have a carrot.” He held up his right hand. “And in this hand I have a stick.” He leant back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap. “It will cost the public sector a fortune to dismiss Peter in accordance with his contract. If you do that, or if you try to dismiss him other than in accordance with his contract, either way I will publicize your actions and do my utmost to blacken your name, both within the public sector and publicly. If, on the other hand, you pension Peter off on half salary, index-linked, with three years pension as a tax free lump sum, I will see that it all goes through without any attention being drawn to it.” He smiled at Helga. “The decision is yours.”

Helga was silent and thoughtful for several seconds. Then she too smiled. She leant forward and rested her hands on her desk. “You know what I love most about working in the public sector?” she said.

Nigel shook his head. “No,” he said.

“It's not my money that I'm playing with,” said Helga. She leant back in her chair. “Okay. I'll sign Peter off for early retirement on the terms that you say.”

“With one month's notice?” said Nigel.

“Yes, with one month's notice,” agreed Helga. She looked at Peter, and then back at Nigel. “And then good riddance to him.”

“Excellent,” said Nigel. He stood up and turned to Peter. “Happy, Peter?”

“Very,” said Peter.

“Excellent,” said Peter. “I'll see you at the bar in the hotel round the corner in five minutes.” He turned to Helga. “I'm sure Helga won't mind letting you finish work early today.”

“Get a drink in for me,” said Peter.

“Will do,” said Nigel.

With that, he left the room.

Helga and Peter looked at each other.

“You know, Helga,” said Peter, smiling, “it helps when people go to the right schools. I only found out the other day that Nigel went to the same school as me.”

“How lovely for you both,” said Helga, rather tight-lipped. “Listen, Peter,” she went on. “You've got one month here. I want you to keep out of my way. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Peter. “I can do that.” He stood up and turned to leave. Then he turned back. “Helga, I think really this has worked out for the best for both of us.”

Helga busied herself with some paperwork on her desk. “You can go,” she said.

Silently Peter left the room.

That night in Sophie's apartment, Peter and Sophie were cuddled up on the sofa again.

“What are you going to do now that you've lost your job?” Sophie asked Peter.

“I don't really have to do anything,” said Peter. “Not if I don't want to. The pension I'm going to get is more than most people get for doing a full time job, plus I'm going to get a lump sum that would be enough for me to buy a home. Not in this city, but either somewhere else in the country where I could live quietly, or even in another, cheaper country.” He went silent for a moment, and then said, “But that's not what I have in mind.”

“What have you got in mind?” asked Sophie.

Peter smiled. “It's bad luck to talk about things before they happen,” he said. “Anyway I need to talk to some people first to see if what I'm thinking of doing is even possible.” He got off the sofa. “Do you mind if I make a phone call?”

“So long as it's not to another,” Sophie said, smiling up at him.

Peter got his mobile phone and dialed a number. “Actually it is,” he said. He put the phone to his ear. After a few seconds, someone answered. Hi, Issie,” said Peter. “It's Peter here. How are things? That's great. Listen, watch your back. Even though you transferred onto the payroll of Jeffrey's department, I suspect Helga might still go after you, and your dad, and Jeffrey. But I've got an idea that I want to discuss with your dad and Jeffrey that I think could benefit them and get them out of the line of fire of any trouble that might potentially be coming their way from Helga. You too, as well. By the way, my job in the public sector is coming to an end. I'm working a month's notice and then I'm getting the maximum pension possible, index-linked, and with a big lump sum payoff too. I'll tell you how I did it when we meet. I want you to arrange a meeting for you, me, Jeffrey and your dad. I also want to bring someone else along. And can you get Simon Gray from the Department of Departmental Outsourcing to come too? Saturday would be the ideal day. Okay, phone me or text me if you can arrange it. Be good. Bye.”

Peter switched the phone off.

“Who's Issie?” Sophie asked a little coolly.

“Sir Nevile Grevile's daughter,” said Peter. “Her dad and Jeffrey put her on the payroll of my department, but she's never done a day's work in her life. It seems my boss Helga has found out about it, so we need a way to spike Helga's guns to stop her kicking up a stink that could bring down Jeffrey and Sir Nevile as well as causing trouble for Issie.”

“You sounded quite friendly with her,” said Sophie. “Know her well, do you?”

Peter looked at Sophie. There was a long silence. Then he said, ” Listen, Sophie. Whatever I've done in the past is in the past, and that's where it's staying. I'm never going to ask you what you've done, or who you've done it with, and I want you to do the same with me. The one thing I can say is this. I'm not involved with any other woman at the moment, and I'm not going to get involved with any woman other than you in the future. Is that clear?”

Sophie hesitated. “Yes,” she said eventually.

“You and I are a couple now,” said Peter, “and I think you know what's going to happen next in our relationship.”

“What?” said Sophie.

Peter bent down and whispered something in her ear.

“Oh, yes!” cried Sophie, flinging her arms around his neck. She looked into his eyes. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Are you sure that's what you want?”

Peter kissed her. “Yes,” he said. “I'm sure.”

They kissed and hugged for several seconds. Then Sophie said, “We shall be Mr. And Mrs. Patter. Like your parents, but the next generation. I'm looking forward to that.”

“Me too,” said Peter.

Sophie got up off the sofa and took Peter's hand. “Come on, Mr. Patter. Let's go to bed.”

“OK, Mrs. Patter,” said Peter. “Let's do that.”

They headed towards their bedroom.

“Perhaps one day we'll hear the pitter patter of the feet of little Patters,” said Sophie.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

On Friday evening, Peter and Sophie turned up at Nick's place and rang the doorbell. Nick opened the door.

“Hi, Peter. Sophie,” he said. “It's good to see you both again. Come in.”

They went into the apartment.

“It's good to see you again too, Nick,” said Sophie.

“Sit down,” said Nick. “Do you fancy a drink? I've got a bottle of wine open.”

“Not for me,” said Sophie.

“Sophie's driving,” said Peter. “But I'll have a glass of wine.”

Peter and Sophie sat down on the sofa while Nick poured out a couple of glasses of wine. He gave one to Peter and then sat down in an armchair.

“Peter,” he began, “I'm really sorry about what I did. I suppose I was just annoyed and jealous that you walked into a job that was better than mine and paid loads more than I was getting after I'd worked in that department for years and years. It serves me right that my attempt to take over your position backfired on me. I'm just sorry that I messed up your employment at the same time. You were doing so well. In the circumstances I was surprised when you said you wanted to come over with Sophie so we could go out for the evening.”

Peter smiled. “I realized that Helga's threat that you would lose your job combined with her offer of a promotion if you did what she wanted really left you with no choice.” He took a sip of his wine. “Anyway don't worry about it, because actually it might all just work out for the best. I've got an idea that I want to try. Are you free tomorrow?”

Nick gave a wry laugh. “I'm free all the time now,” he said. “I am looking for a job though. Obviously I need an income, so I've got to find something pretty quick.”

“Don't go looking too seriously just for the time being,” said Peter. “I might just have something for you.”

“You?” said Nick. “How?”

Peter smiled. “Wait and see. If you're free tomorrow, you'll find out then.”

“Okay,” said Nick. “Where are we going and what are we doing?”

Peter took a pen and a piece of paper out of his pocket, wrote something on the paper and handed it to Nick.

“Be there tomorrow at midday,” said Peter. “Sophie and I will be there along with some other people.”

Nick looked at the address written on the piece of paper. “Looks like a pretty grand address,” he said. “Presumably the home of someone important.”

“It's certainly the home of someone pretty important to us,” said Peter. “So be on your best behavior.”

Nick grinned. “I always am,” he said.

Peter finished off his wine. “Shall we go out now? It's our treat tonight.”

Nick finished his wine. “Tell me if I'm wrong,” he said, “but I get the sense that you two are a proper couple now. Am I right?”

“Yes,” Peter and Sophie both said together. They looked at each other and laughed.

Peter turned back to Nick. “It's taken me a long time to see sense,” he said, “but at last I've realized that Sophie is the one for me.”

Sophie spoke up. “I never had any doubts that we'd end up together.” She looked at Peter. “I knew it was just a matter of time.”

“I'm pleased for you both,” said Nick. “I really am.”

“Thanks, Nick,” said Peter. “Of course you'll be invited to the wedding. In fact you can be my best man. If you want to, that is.”

“I'd love to,” said Nick.

“Great,” said Peter. “Come on then. Let's go.”

The three of them got to their feet.

“Let's all go in Sophie's car,” Peter said to Nick. “Then you and I can have a few drinks and let our hair down.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Nick.

With all of them in a good mood, they left the apartment and headed off for what was to prove to be a very enjoyable night out.

At noon the following day, Peter and Sophie pulled up in Sophie's Mini at Sir Nevile Grevile's country house. Nick was already there, standing waiting by his car. He came over to join them. At that moment, Issie came out of the house. With a smile on her face, she strolled over to the three of them.

“Peter,” she said. “How are you?”

She kissed Peter on the lips. Sophie looked decidedly frosty.

“I'm fine, Issie,” said Peter. “You okay?”

“I'm still getting paid for not doing any work,” laughed Issie. “I guess that's the main thing.”

“Good,” said Peter. “And I want to see to it that you keep on getting good money without having to do any work for it.”

“I'm intrigued,” said Issie. “I'm sure that you'll tell me in your own good time how you're going to manage that.” She looked at Nick, then Sophie, then back to Peter. “Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?” she said.

“Of course,” said Peter. He indicated Nick. “This is Nick,” he said. “Until recently he worked at …” He hesitated. ”… at our department in the public sector.”

“Pleased to meet you, Nick,” said Issie.

Peter indicated Sophie. “And this is my fiancée, Sophie.”

Issie grinned and playfully punched Peter on the shoulder. “You dark horse!” she said. “I didn't know you had a fiancée.”

Peter also grinned. “Neither did I until a few days ago,” he said. He paused, then went on, “Rather stupidly I've been resisting settling down with Sophie for years, but I suddenly realized the other day that she's always been my best friend and she's the one I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“Well, congratulations to you,” said Issie. She looked at Sophie, then stepped over and gave her a hug. Sophie was rather taken by surprise.

“Congratulations to you, Sophie,” said Issie, “and best wishes to you. I hope you and Peter have a long and happy marriage.”

“Thanks,” said Sophie. “That's really nice of you.” She hesitated, and then added, “Are you a good friend of Peter's?”

Issie looked steadily into Sophie's eyes. “More of an acquaintance, I'd say, Sophie,” she said. “That's all.”

Peter spoke up. “Is your dad here, Issie, and Jeffrey, and Simon Gray?”

“Yes, they're all here,” said Issie. “They're in daddy's study waiting for you.”

“Good,” said Peter. “Let's go in and I'll put my idea to them. It'll be interesting to see what they think about it, and then, if they like it, whether or not they can make it happen.”

“Am I going to be in on this scheme of yours?” Issie asked.

“Yes,” said Peter. “And Nick, and Sophie.”

“I hope it's not going to be anything dodgy,” Issie said, a mock-innocent expression on her face.

Peter laughed. “Actually, no it isn't. It's simply intended to make all our futures secure.”

“Excellent,” said Issie. “Come on then, follow me, and I'll take you to the others.”

She led the way to the house and went inside. Peter, Sophie and Nick followed obediently behind her.

About an hour and a half later, the four of them came out of the house again.

“I certainly wasn't expecting you to come up with an idea like that, Peter,” said Nick.

“Nor was I,” said Issie, “and I don't think dad and Jeffrey and Simon Gray were either.”

“But it's great that they said they'll back your idea, Peter,” said Sophie. “Do you really think you can make it happen?”

“Now I've got their support, yes,” said Peter.

“This really could turn all our lives around,” said Nick.

Peter smiled. “Do you see now why I told you not to be in a hurry to try and find another job?” he said.

“Yes,” said Nick.

Sophie spoke. “Of course if all this does happen, I'll have to give up my job.”

Peter looked at her tenderly. “If you absolutely didn't want to,” he said, “you wouldn't have to. But if you want to be with me and you want to be free, it would certainly be better if you ditched your existing job.”

“That's exactly what I want, darling,” said Sophie, “so if this really does go ahead, I'll hand in my notice straightaway.”

Peter kissed Sophie. I'm going to make this happen,” said Peter. “I have no doubt about.” He gazed into Sophie's eyes, and then turned and looked at Nick and Issie. “All of us have a wonderful future ahead of us,” he said.

Issie stopped. The others also stopped and looked at her.

“I'll let you guys be on your way,” she said, a contented smile on her face. “I'm going back in to talk things over with dad a bit more.” She looked at Peter. “If this really does happen, I'll be able to carry on living the way I love to live without always having to be looking over my shoulder and worrying about whether I'm going to get caught for being paid money without doing anything to earn it.”

“Okay, Issie,” said Peter, “and thanks for arranging this little get-together today.”

“My pleasure,” Issie said warmly. She sighed. “This is going to benefit all of us so much.” She came over and kissed Peter. Then she took a couple of steps and gave Sophie an affectionate hug.

She stepped back and turned to Nick. “I suppose you've got a fiancée too,” she said.

“No, I haven't,” said Nick. “I'm unattached. In fact I've never even really thought about settling down with someone.”

“Then it's about time you did,” she said. “What do they say? A man is incomplete until he's married, and then …”

”… he's finished,” said Nick, laughing.

Issie laughed too. She took out her mobile phone and handed it to Nick. “Dial your mobile number on my phone,” she said.

Nick hesitated, then did as he was told. His mobile phone started to ring.

Sophie took her phone back. “Don't answer it,” she said. “Just save my number.” She pressed some keys on her phone. “There,” she said. “I've saved your number.” She watched Nick while he obediently saved her number on his phone. Then she said, “Phone me some time. We can go out for a drink and a talk.”

Nick gazed into her eyes. “That would be nice,” he said eventually.

Peter spoke up. “Right,” he said. “Sophie and I are off.” He turned to Sophie. “I want to go over to see mum and dad. I want to see how they react to this idea of mine. Especially dad because he's going to be playing an active role in it.”

“Okay,” said Sophie. “You phone them. We might be able to go straight over.” She turned to Issie and Nick. “See you both,” she said. She smiled. “Be good.”

“We'll try,” said Issie.

“See you Sophie,” said Nick. “See you Peter.”

“Yes, see you both,” said Peter.

Peter and Sophie got into Sophie's car, Sophie behind the wheel, and as they drove off, Peter could be seen making the phone call to his parents.

Margaret Patter opened the door of the council house which she and her husband now called home, and there as expected stood Peter and Sophie.

“Hello, mum,” said Peter.

“Hello, Mrs. Patter,” said Sophie.

“Hello, dears,” said Margaret, beaming. “Come in. It's so nice to see you two.”

Peter and Sophie went into the house.

Margaret closed the front door. “David's in the sitting room,” she said Margaret, leading the way there. “Shall I make us all some tea?”

“That would be lovely, mum,” said Peter. He turned to Sophie. “Are you okay with tea, Sophie?” he asked.

“Yes, I'd love a cup,” Sophie replied.

“I'll go and make some then,” said Margaret.

She went into the kitchen, and Peter and Sophie went into the sitting room. There they found Peter's dad, David, dozing in a tatty armchair. Peter shook his arm gently while Sophie went and sat down on the sofa. David woke up.

“Hello, dad,” said Peter. “Are you having your afternoon nap?”

“I must have dropped off,” said David. “I was watching cricket on the TV earlier on. That's enough to make anyone fall asleep.”

“Listen, dad,” said Peter earnestly. “I want a word with you. How do you fancy getting back into business?”

David sat up, suddenly wide awake. “What have you got in mind?” he said.

“Let's go into the other room and I'll tell you,” said Peter. “Mother won't be actively involved in this, but that's not important because your role in this will enable you to look after her properly again.”

David got to his feet. “That's what I want more than anything,” he said.

“I know, dad,” said Peter. “Something suddenly occurred to him. “By the way,” he said, “where's this self-storage space where you're keeping all the stuff from our old home?”

“Why do you want to know?” said David.

“Trust me and tell me,” said Peter. “I'll be doing the clever stuff from now on.”

“I hope you know what you're doing,” said David. “It's the one off Oldfields Road.”

“I know it,” said Peter. “How do I get at our stuff?”

“There's a code to get in and out of the building,” said David. He took a rather empty wallet out of one of his pockets. In it was a piece of paper. He took it out and handed it to Peter. Out of another pocket he took a key. “Here's the key for getting into the room where all our stuff is stored.” He gave the key to Peter.

“Thanks, dad,” said Peter. “Come on, let's go into the other room and I'll tell you what I'm planning on doing business-wise. Then you can tell me whether you want the role in it I've got in mind for you.”

Peter and David left the room and went into the back room. A few seconds later, Margaret came into the sitting room with two cups of tea, which she put down on a low table in front of the sofa where Sophie was sitting.

“The men have disappeared to talk about something, I see,” she said, sitting down next to Sophie. “I've taken them their tea.”

“Yes, Mrs. Patter,” said Sophie, “and it might just get you and Mr. Patter out of this terrible place.”

“I do hope so, my dear,” said Margaret, sipping her tea. “I do hope so. David is being very stoic, but this is the worst experience of our lives, living in this grim hovel, surrounded by people who are little better than animals.”

“Peter's going to do his best to get you back to where you and Mr. Patter belong, Mrs. Patter,” Sophie said.

“I hope he succeeds,” Margaret said succinctly.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

For several days Peter was extremely busy, but not with his public sector work. Rather he was busy putting everything together for his own self-serving plan. Eventually, having done almost everything he could do for the time being, he one day turned up by arrangement at the office of Simon Gray, the Director of the Department of Governmental Outsourcing.

“Come in, Peter,” said Simon, welcoming him into his sumptuous office. “Let's sit down on the sofa.”

The two men sat down on the Chesterfield sofa. On the table in front of the sofa stood a bottle of red wine and a couple of glasses. Simon filled the two glasses and handed one to Peter. “Try this,” he said.

Peter sipped his wine. Simon did likewise with his.

“What do think of this Barolo wine, Peter?” Simon asked. “I find it pleasingly robust.”

“It has a strong character,” said Peter. “Powerful, but without being over-powering.”

“Good description, Peter,” said Simon. He put his glass down. “Now, we need to get things moving with that idea of yours that we discussed at Sir Nevile's place. Sir Nevile, of course,as the Minister responsible for your department, is giving me permission to authorize your department being outsourced. Naturally there are some conditions to be met, so my own written permission has at this stage to be dependent on those conditions being met and on certain information being provided.” He looked at Peter. “You appreciate, don't you, Peter, that I have to cover my back by making everything look regular and above board?”

“Of course, Simon,” said Peter. “That's only sensible.”

“I presume you've set up a company to handle this,” said Simon, picking up his glass again.

“Yes,” said Peter. “It's called Public Sector Inspectors Incorporated.”

“Sounds good,” said Simon. “It could hardly have a more appropriate name.”

“My mother, father, Sophie and I are directors,” said Peter. “Sophie and I are the shareholders.”

“And,” said Simon, “as you suggested at Sir Nevile's, there's going to be a role for me in the business?”

“Yes,” said Peter. “You'll be a consultant and get remuneration for that. The same goes for Sir Nevile and Jeffrey.”

“Excellent,” said Simon. He thought a moment, and then said, “You've opened a bank account?”

“Yes,” said Peter.

Of course you have to prove you have adequate financing in place,” said Simon, “but as I understand it, Jeffrey Coller will be dealing with that.”

“Yes,” said Peter. “I'm seeing him tomorrow to finalize all that.”

“Then the other things you need to show you've dealt with,” Simon went on, “are what happens to existing staff of the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction. Then you'll need to state in writing the service you'll be providing for the government through your new company and what you will be charging the government for that service, which will of course be identical to what is being done by your department now. Whatever you charge, I'll see to it that it gets approved, so you may as well make it a higher figure rather than a lower one.”

I've done pretty much all of that already,” said Peter, “but I'll get it finished off immediately.”

“Excellent,” said Simon. He leant back and relaxed. “In that case we might as well savor our wine. After that, I'll get on with drawing up some preliminary paperwork.”

The next day, Peter went to see his old boss Jeffrey Coller. In Jeffrey's office, Jeffrey sat at his desk. Peter sat on the other side of the desk waiting for Jeffrey to speak.

“So, Peter,” Jeffrey said at last, “you've been to see Simon Gray then?”

“Yes,” said Peter.

“Everything went alright?” asked Jeffrey.

“Fine,” said Peter. “Subject to sorting out the paperwork and the money, Simon has agreed that the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction can be outsourced to my new company.”

Jeffrey put the fingertips of his hands together to form a steeple shape. “Yes,” he said slowly, drawing out the word. “The money. That's what we must sort out. Your department isn't a big one, but it still costs many millions a year to run. You're going need several million just to get you started.” He smiled. “That isn't going to be a problem,” he said. He leant forward across the desk. “It's lucky that I got promoted to be Director of this department, the Department of Grants, isn't it?” He leant back again. “I have access to, and power of discretion over, much more money even than we need for this project.” He looked at Peter. “Have you any idea how much money you need?”

Peter produced some papers from a leather case and put them on the desk in front of Jeffrey. “There's a business plan and cash flow forecast I did with the help of my dad,” he said. He flicked through the papers and then pointed at a figure at the bottom of one of the sheets. “That's the figure we reckon we need to get us up and running and to trade for a few months before the money starts coming in regularly from the government for our service.”

Jeffrey looked at it, and then smiled. “I think we can stretch to that. It's quite a few millions, but not too many. In fact, Peter, I'll add another three million to that figure. I'm sure you'll want to make some sort of payment to the people who are helping you to become a very rich young man.”

“In that case,” said Peter, “I think it would be appropriate if I shared that three million amongst you and Sir Nevile and Simon Gray as an expression of my gratitude for making all this possible.”

“Thank you,” said Jeffrey. He leant back in his chair. “Does Simon want to see the business's money now?”

“No,” said Peter. “He'll be happy with a letter confirming that the grant money will definitely be forthcoming if he signs off the authorization for the department to be outsourced.”

“Right,” said Jeffrey, “I'll get that seen to now.”

“There is just one other thing I wanted to have a word with you about, Jeffrey,” Peter said.

“What is it?” Jeffrey asked.

“I'm still worried,” said Peter, “about Helga Sprott's potential for causing trouble over the Issie affair. You know, Issie getting a public sector salary even though she's never done any work in the public sector. Obviously Issie's technically out of Helga's department and in your department now, but I reckon it's still possible for Helga to delve deeper into the matter and uncover evidence that would allow her to cause trouble for us all. Of course we could get Issie out of your department and out of the public sector altogether. I could even nominally take her on as an employee of my new business, but I'm not sure that even that would make it impossible for Helga to reveal to the world what's been going on for so many years.” He shook his head. “With things looking so good and lucrative for us all now, I'd hate anything to come out in public that would sour the situation for us.”

Jeffrey looked thoughtful for a few moments. Then he said, “We must find a way of neutralizing Helga and we must make sure that Sir Nevile's daughter is safe and secure and financially well provided for.” After a few more moments of thoughtful silence, he briskly picked the papers up off his desk and said, “Let me get this letter sorted out. Then we'll try to work out what we're going to do about both Helga and Issie.”

As Jeffrey got on with composing and writing a letter, Peter sat silently thinking.

Another day, Peter went back to see Simon. Knocking on the door and walking into Simon's office, knowing that he was expected, he found Simon sitting at his desk.

“Hello, Peter,” Simon said affably. “Take a seat. I'll be with you in a moment.” He carried on signing off some paperwork.

Peter sat down in a chair facing Simon across the desk. In his hands he held a thick folder full of papers.

Simon finished what he was doing and pushed his completed paperwork t to one side. “And how is your paperwork coming along, Peter?” he said. “Did you get written confirmation from Jeffrey that his department would grant us … I mean you … all the money you need for this business idea of yours to be able to fly?”

Peter smiled broadly. “I certainly did,” he said. He put the folder he was holding onto the desk in front of Simon. “I think you'll find everything in order. There's everything under the sun in there. Business plans. Cash flows. Specifications for the service to be provided. You name it, it should all be in there.”

Simon picked up the folder and briefly flicked through the papers in it. “Excellent,” he said. “If it is all in order, there will only be one extra lot of paperwork that needs to go in there.”

“What's that?” said Peter.

Simon picked up the paperwork he had been dealing with when Peter had come into the room. “This,” he said, “is Sir Nevile Grevile's written permission for your department to be outsourced to your company, subject to all necessary conditions being satisfactorily met.”

“That's wonderful,” said Peter happily. “We're all set to go then.” He paused, and then added, “Although I suppose you'll need to check through my paperwork first.”

“Yes,” said Simon. He stood up. “So let's go and combine business with pleasure and have lunch at a madly expensive restaurant. We'll charge it to the taxpayer of course. Then while we eat and drink and chat, I'll cast my eye over all these papers.”

Peter got to his feet. “Sounds good to me,” he said.

The two men left the office, Simon carrying the important paperwork with him under an arm.

After a superb and rather lengthy lunch, Simon and Peter returned to the office. They sat down on their respective sides of the desk. Simon put the folder of paperwork onto the desk.

“That,” he said, “was a satisfying lunch in every way. All the paperwork I need to authorize the outsourcing is there in this folder, and it is all correct. It meets all the requirements of the government and my department to let it go through with our full seal of approval.” He leaned forward. “So all I need to do now is sign the official authorization. Can you wait a couple of minutes while I deal with that, Peter?”

“I certainly can,” said Peter, “with pleasure.”

“And then for you I suppose it's back to Jeffrey to collect the money,” said Simon with a smile.

“Yes,” said Peter.

“You're on your way to becoming a very rich man, Peter,” said Simon.

“We're all going to end up quite a lot richer, Simon,” said Peter.

“Indeed we are, Peter,” said Simon. “Indeed we are.” He leant forward, puts his elbows on the deck, and rested his chin on his folded hands. “There is just one thing that still mildly concerns me,” he said softly.

“What's that?” said Peter.

“The Helga problem,” said Simon. “Or perhaps I should call it the Isabel Grevile problem. There's no mention of Helga Sprott in here.” He indicated the paperwork connected with the outsourcing of Helga's department to Peter's new company. “I don't want Sir Nevile, or Jeffrey, or Sir Nevile's daughter Issie for that matter, to still end up getting into trouble in any way after everyone has otherwise been set up so nicely in this new and lucrative business.”

Peter smiled. “Don't worry, Simon,” he said. “Jeffrey and I have come up with a way to …” He paused. ”… to neutralize Helga. She won't be causing any of us any problems.”

Simon leant back in his chair, a pleased look of relief on his face. “Excellent,” he said. “I absolutely take your word for it.” He reached out and picked up the paperwork from his desk. “So,” he said, “let's get all this paperwork signed off. You can go and get your money from Jeffrey. Then it's up to you and everyone else involved to see to it that the current activities of the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction are satisfactorily transferred into the no doubt capable hands of your company, Public Sector Inspectors Incorporated.”

Peter relaxed into his chair and, with pleasant feelings of satisfaction and anticipation, watched Simon go through the paperwork double-checking everything and making sure that everything was properly signed off.

As the end of his period of notice in his job approached, Peter paid another visit to Jeffrey. This was the final one, necessary to complete the department outsourcing deal. As on the last visit, Jeffrey sat at his desk and Peter sat on the other side of it facing him.

“So,” said Jeffrey, “it's all been approved, by Simon, by Sir Nevile, by anyone else necessary?”

“Yes,” said Peter. “All that remains to be dealt with is transferring the approved grant money from your department to my company and then I can get on with everything that's involved in outsourcing Helga's department to my company.”

Jeffrey smiled. “As far as the money is concerned, everything these days is done online. Just point out your company's bank details to me in this folder.” He indicated the folder of paperwork on his desk connected with the public sector department outsourcing that was about to take place.

Peter picked up the folder from the desk, flicked through the papers in it, then held up the folder so that Jeffrey could see a particular sheet of paper in it. Peter pointed at some details on the page.

“Here they are,” he said.

“Hold the folder there while I just make the transfer,” said Jeffrey.

Glancing up occasionally at the details of Peter's company's bank account, Jeffrey busied himself on the computer that sat on his desk. After a couple of minutes he made one final keystroke, and then leant back in his chair, folded his hands in his lap, and smiled at Peter.

“You can put the folder down,” he said. “It's all done. The money's been transferred to your company's bank account. It might take a short while to go through, but otherwise, Peter, you're now a multi-millionaire.”

Peter smiled. “I have to tell you, Jeffrey, that it feels good. Many thanks for doing all this. Of course a significant amount of the money will be coming back to you, and of course to Simon and Sir Nevile too, as an expression of my gratitude for making this life-changing transaction possible.”

Jeffrey looked at Peter. “Have we agreed a figure for each of us?” he asked.

“Tacitly, yes,” said Peter. “There are three of you, and you did add three million onto the grant I was originally going to ask for.” He smiled. “I have to say I had already inflated that figure anyway to meet my own, and my family's, particular needs.” He paused. “Therefore I thought it would be appropriate to share that extra three million with the three of you and give you a million each.”

Jeffrey smiled. “I was hoping that would be the case.”

“Of course the three of you will also be employed as consultants by Public Sector Inspectors Incorporated at very generous salaries,” Peter added.

“That's very pleasing to hear,” said Jeffrey. “Thank you.” He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “I think we're all going to be very well looked after, courtesy of the taxpayer as usual.”

Peter smiled and nodded his head. Then he became more serious. “Now,” he said, “there's just Issie to be dealt with, and Helga Sprott.”

“Let's get Issie dealt with first,” said Jeffrey. “As you mentioned, she supposedly, if not in reality, works in my department here, having transferred here from your department, which was of course my old department. I therefore have a certain amount of power over her, and can do good or bad, just as Helga tried to do with you, and indeed as she succeeded in doing with your friend Nick Jenks.” He paused. “By the way, will Nick have any role in your new business?”

“I'll be finding him a position,” Peter said with an enigmatic smile.

“Good,” said Jeffrey. “I always thought him a nice young man, and, in his own way, as competent and efficient as Helga.” He thought a moment, then went on, “But getting back to Sir Nevile's daughter Issie. You suggested to me, that just as Helga did with you, albeit reluctantly, I should pension Issie off on a maximum pension and give her a nice lump sum as well. I think, as I said, that that is a good idea as it would provide her with the financial freedom and life of leisure that she craves, and to which she has indeed got quite accustomed.”

“I could live a life of leisure now, if I wanted to,” said Peter, “but actually I want to make a success as of my new business and get some real wealth.”

“An admirable ambition,” said Jeffrey. He seemed to ponder something for a moment. Then he said somewhat dreamily, “You know, Peter, I sometimes think I should pension myself off, but strangely I rather enjoy working.” He looked at Peter with a sharp, amused look in his eyes. “Especially,” he said, “as I now have at my disposal, as you have just seen, rather large amounts of money.” He let out a little self-satisfied laugh, as if there was something pleasing he knew that other people didn't. “But let's get back to Issie,” he suddenly said. “I agree with you that I should pension her off in the most generous way possible from the public sector that she has never actually worked in. That, therefore, is what I shall do.”

“She'll be delighted,” said Peter. “I guess she'll be notified by this department or by the public sector pension department in writing, just as I was?”

“Yes, by both,” said Jeffrey. “I have to speak to the right people, grease some palms and doctor some details on the computer system so that everything appears above board, and then it will be put in writing.” Jeffrey looked at Peter in a rather sly way. “But you can tell her yourself what we've decided to do as well if you want to,” he said. “I shall let Sir Nevile what's happening next time I speak to him.”

Peter nodded his head, but remained silent. Then he said, “So that just leaves Helga Sprott to be dealt with.”

“You can handle that, can't you?” said Jeffrey. “Perhaps with Sir Nevile's help.”

“Okay,” said Peter. He got to his feet. “I'm sure the two of us together will sort something out.” He turned towards the door. “I'd better get on to it straightaway. Suitable things must be made to happen, and quickly.” Suddenly he stopped and turned back to Jeffrey. “Thanks for everything, Jeffrey,” he said sincerely. “You're really the one responsible for turning my whole life around.”

Jeffrey smiled. “I think all our lives have been turned around, Peter,” he said, “and really in rather good ways.”

Peter nodded his head slowly in silent agreement. Then he smiled and said, “Let me know how you want your million paid to you. I'll ask Simon and Sir Nevile how they want theirs paid to them.”

Turning again, he left the room.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

One day not long afterwards, Margaret Patter opened the front door of her and her husband's council house, and there stood Peter and Sophie. Unlike last time, this time their appearance on her doorstep was unexpected.

“Hello, dears,” said Margaret. “This is a surprise. Why didn't you phone to say you were coming?”

“Because then it wouldn't be a surprise, would it, mum?” said Peter with a grin. “I presume dad's in.”

“Yes,” said Margaret. “We were just playing Monopoly together. He's building up a property empire and trying to bankrupt me.”

“Good man,” said Peter. “Mum, can you go and get him and bring him to the front door for me?”

“Aren't you coming in?” said Margaret.

“No,” said Peter. “You and dad are coming out. Sophie and I have something to show you.”

“I'll go and get changed,” said Margaret.

“No,” said Peter. “You're coming as you are. The same goes for dad. Now go and fetch him. Both of you put some shoes on instead of slippers, but otherwise just stay wearing what you're wearing.”

Margaret disappeared into the house and came back a few seconds later with David. They had both put shoes on in place of their slippers.

“Hello, you two,” said David cheerfully.

“Hello, dad,” said Peter.

“Hello, Mr. Patter,” said Sophie.

“What's going on then, Peter?” David asked his son. “Is this connected with our new business, or rather your new business, of which I'm going to be a part?”

“Not directly,” said Peter, looking amused by whatever it was he knew. “This is something else.”

David looked over Peter's shoulder and saw a black Mercedes that looked identical to the one Peter used to drive.

“Have you got your old set of public sector wheels back?” he asked. “How did you manage that?”

“I didn't,” said Peter. “That car I've got now is similar to the car I used to have. I liked the old one so much that I bought this one which is almost identical.” He turned around. “Come on, you two,” he said over his shoulder. “We're going for a ride in it.”

“You could have given us some notice, Peter,” said David.

Peter stopped and turned around. “Bear with me, dad,” he said. “I haven't come over here just to surprise you and mum with my car. There's a bigger surprise for both of you at the end of our ride.” He started heading towards his car again. “Come on.”

David and Margaret stepped out of their house, and, together with Sophie, they joined Peter in the Mercedes.

The drive to wherever they were going was pleasant, and the conversation initially flowed easily, but as they continued on their way, David and Margaret gradually spoke less and less, and then they fell silent. They recognized where they were. They were uncomfortably close to where they had, until not all that long ago, lived. As they got closer and closer to their old home they unavoidably fell into their individual memories of the place and the lives they had led their. Even Sophie began to feel a little uncomfortable. And then as they were about to drive past the entrance to the driveway that led down to their grand old home, Peter slowed down the car.

He turned into the driveway. Steadily he drove along it towards the house.

“What are you doing?” said David.

Peter didn't reply. He pulled up outside the house and got out of the car. Quietly he stood looking at the house.

After some hesitation, David, Margaret and Sophie also got out of the car.

Peter turned and smiled at his dad. He took some keys out of one of his pockets, walked over to David, and held out the keys.

“Here, dad,” he said. “Take these.”

David's brow furrowed. “What's going on, Peter?” he asked.

“They're the keys to our family home,” said Peter. “You'll need them so you and mum can get in and out and come and go.”

“This isn't a good joke, Peter,” David said sternly. “This isn't your mum's and my house any more. It's the bank's. “We shouldn't be on this property. Let's go.”

He turned to get back into the car.

“Yes,” said Peter quietly and calmly, “let's go. Let's go into the house. Because this isn't the bank's. It's mine. I bought it off the bank. Luckily they hadn't been able to find another buyer for it since they repossessed it, so I was able to get it.” He took Sophie's hand and started walking with her towards the front door. “Come on,” he said over his shoulder to his parents.

After some hesitation, David and Margaret held hands and followed after Peter and Sophie.

Carrying on walking, Peter turned his head slightly and said, “Oh, I forgot to mention. Sophie and I are getting married. I thought all four of us could live here.”

David and Margaret stopped and looked at each other. Then they both smiled broadly and started walking again to catch up with their son and future daughter-in-law.

As he approached the front door of the house, Peter stopped. Lightly tugging Sophie's hand to indicate what he was doing, he stepped to one side. Sophie obediently did likewise. Peter turned to his parents.

“You go in first,” he said.

David and Margaret went up to the front door and David opened it with the key Peter had given them. They stepped over the threshold.

They could hardly believe their eyes. All the same furniture and furnishings were there. It was exactly as if nothing had changed from when they had so happily lived there in the past.

“I got everything back from the place where you'd put it in storage,” Peter said to his parents. “It took a bit of work rearranging it all properly, but I thought you'd like our old home to be just the way it used to be.”

“This is wonderful,” said Margaret.

“I never thought I'd be standing here again like this,” said David. He turned to Peter. “And you really do own the place?” he said. “We really can live here and feel utterly secure?”

Peter smiled. “Yes,” he said simply.

Margaret went over to Sophie, wrapped her arms around her and gave her a hug. “So you and Peter are getting married at last?” she said with a broad smile.

“Yes, Mrs. Patter,” said Sophie.

“I'm so pleased,” said Margaret. “It's something I've wanted to hear for a long time.”

“Me too,” said Sophie rather wryly.

“And you and Peter are going to live here?” said Margaret. “With David and me?”

“Yes,” said Sophie.

“Congratulations to you both,” David said to Peter and Sophie. “And what a start to married life.” He turned to Margaret. “I wish our first home together had been like this,” he said to her.

“Me too,” said Margaret, giving a little laugh.

David turned to Peter. “Where on earth did you get the money to buy this place back?”

“It's courtesy of the generosity of the public sector. My friends there made it possible for me to be given money to outsource to our new company the department that I've been working in, and basically they let me have more than was needed, so I spent some of the extra money on getting this place back for us.”

“So that's how taxpayers' money gets redistributed,” said David, not sure whether to be pleased or irritated.

“It's just one of the many ways,” said Peter, smiling. “There are those who give, and those who take. Fortunately we now find ourselves on the receiving end rather than the giving end.”

“So basically you've got this for free?” said David. “I mean you've got it with other people's money that you won't have to pay back, no matter what happens. And nobody's got a charge over this place, so it's a hundred percent yours?”

Peter nodded his head.

“Very clever,” said David. “I wish I could have pulled off deals like that.”

“I'm sure you could, dad,” said Peter, “if in your day the government had been as big and extravagant as it is now. But this place has to be earned, even if it hasn't necessarily been deserved.” He inclined his head in the direction of what had previously been his father's study. “Come on,” he said. “Let's go into my study and start pulling everything together to transfer the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction to our new family business.”

Peter started walking towards the study. David stood still a moment, a slightly unhappy look on his face caused by the realization that his son was now the master of the house. He glanced at his wife. Margaret smiled at him and nodded her head. David smiled back. Then, looking comfortably resigned to his and his son's changed status, he followed Peter to the study.

Peter turned to Sophie. “By the way, Sophie, darling,” he said, “I've arranged to go out with Nick tomorrow night for a drink. You will come, won't you?”

“Yes, of course,” said Sophie. “I'd love to.”

“Good,” said Peter. “Nick's got a girlfriend he's bringing along, so that'll make us two couples instead of me playing gooseberry with them.”

Peter and David continued into the study and closed the door behind them.

Margaret turned to Sophie and took her hand. “Is there anything in the kitchen, dear?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Sophie. “Peter and I have stocked the place up with food and drink.”

“Good. Let's go and make a pot of tea,” said Margaret. “Then we can put a meal together for the four of us.”

“Okay, Mrs. Patter,” said Sophie. “That sounds good.”

Margaret smiled. “You'll soon be Mrs. Patter too,” she said. “Perhaps you should call me Margaret from now on.”

“I will,” said Sophie, “if that's what you want, Margaret.”

“I do,” said Margaret.

Sophie laughed. “That's what I shall be saying to Peter soon.”

Feeling comfortable together and very happy, Margaret and Sophie headed off to the kitchen.

Chapter Thirty

The following day, Peter and Sophie went to the wine bar where Peter had arranged to meet Nick and his new girlfriend. They were a bit early and the other two weren't there yet, so they got themselves a couple of glasses of wine, found a table, and sat down.

They had been chatting for a while when Sophie said, “I'm looking forward to seeing what Nick's girlfriend is like.”

“I think you'll recognize her,” said Peter. “Here they come now.”

Heading towards them were Nick and his girlfriend. The girlfriend was Issie.

“Peter. Sophie,” said Issie. “Great to see you.” She kissed Sophie on the cheeks, and then did the same with Peter.

“Hi, Peter. Sophie,” said Nick. “Do you want more drinks?”

“I'm OK,” said Peter.

“Me too,” said Sophie.

“OK,” said Nick. “I'll go and get Issie and me something to drink.”

“No, darling,” said Issie. “You sit down. I'll get us some drinks. Wine?”

“Please,” said Nick.

Issie went off to get the drinks, and Nick sat down opposite Peter and Sophie.

“Wedding date fixed yet?” said with a smile.

Sophie answered. “We're just debating where to have the wedding and what sort of ceremony to have. Then we'll sort out the date. Don't worry, you'll be invited. And we'll have to invite Issie too, by the look of it.” She paused, and then said, “You two hooked up pretty quickly.”

“She's got a pretty captivating character,” said Nick. “I think she's the one for me. We're talking about settling down together.”

“Good on you, Nick,” said Peter.

“Yes, go for it,” said Sophie.

“I think we will,” said Nick. He turned to Peter. “How are preparations going for transferring the department to the business?”

“Pretty much all the arrangements are in place,” said Peter. “Just one or two things left to see to. We want the transfer to go through as smoothly as possible.”

“Of course,” said Nick. “By the way, I told Issie you wanted to tell her something important.”

Sophie looked at Peter. “Oh yes?” she said. “What's that?”

Peter smiled. “You're just about to hear what it is,” he said.

Carrying two glasses of wine, Issie was approaching the table. She put the glasses down on the table and sat down next to Nick.

“So,” she said to Peter, “what's this important stuff you want to tell me?”

“I think you'll like it,” said Peter. “You know your job in Jeffrey Coller's department?”

Issie laughed. “Is that the job that involves me not doing anything and never turning up?” she said. “Yes, I know it.”

“You aren't going to be having that job much longer?” said Peter.

“What?” exclaimed Issie. “But I need the money. What am I going to live on?”

“We'll have my income, darling,” said Nick. He turned to Peter. “I am still going to be a Public Sector Inspector in the new company, aren't I, Peter?” he asked.

“I'm afraid not, Nick,” said Peter.

Sophie spoke up. “Oh, Peter!” she said. “How could you? You said Nick could have a position in the company.”

Nick spoke. He sounded disappointed but resigned. “No, Sophie,” he said, “it's alright. I guess I deserve it. After all I did rather betray Peter and try to make him lose his job in the expectation that I would take it over.”

Peter turned to Sophie. “Darling,” he said, “I'm keeping my word. Nick does have a position in the new company.” He turned to Nick. “You're going to be the company's Public Sector Inspector Inspector. You'll be checking that all our Public Sector Inspectors are doing their job properly.” He raised his glass and took a sip of wine. “You'll be earning three times as much as they do. Okay?”

“Okay?” said Nick. “That's brilliant, Peter.” He turned to Issie. “See, darling? We're going to being to be alright for money.”

“Yes,” said Issie, “but I've got so used to having my own money. I'd still like to have some sort of income of my own.”

“You will have,” said Peter. “If everything goes according to plan, Jeffrey and your dad will be arranging things so that when your job in the public sector finishes in a few weeks' time, you'll get a lifelong, inflation-proofed pension equal to half your current salary, plus a tax-free lump sum equivalent to three years pension.”

“That's brilliant!” Issie almost yelled. She turned to Nick, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him. “Let's start house-hunting,” she said. Then, with a sort of twinkle in her eye, she said, “We'd better play safe and look for something that might be suitable as a family home. Just in case.”

Nick looked delighted.

Issie turned to Peter. “I'm not going to get in trouble for all the money I've had out of the public sector and all the money I'm going to get, am I, Peter? That woman who became head of your department after Jeffrey was promoted …”

“Helga” said Peter. “Helga Sprott.”

“What a name!” said Issie. “She's not going to spoil everything for me, is she? And for daddy and Jeffrey too?”

“No,” said Peter. “Don't worry, Issie. We know how to deal with her. It's the old carrot and stick.”

“What?” said Issie.

Peter laughed. “Never you mind,” he said. “Just leave us to deal with her. You're safe in your good fortune.” He stood up. “Now,” he said, “I think a bottle of Champagne might be in order, and it'll be on me.” He smiled at Sophie and Nick and Issie. “Then again, I might just put it on my public sector credit card while I've still got the use of it.”

Chapter Thirty-One

Several days later, Peter's employment in the public sector had come to an end. He had handed in his security pass. He had also handed in his public sector credit card. He had all the paperwork confirming that his generous public sector pension and tax-free lump sum were approved and that arrangements for them to be paid to him were now in place.

Yet here he was, sitting in Helga's office, facing her across her desk. Alongside him, similarly seated facing Helga, were Sir Nevile Grevile, Jeffrey Coller, Simon Gray, and Nick.

Sir Nevile spoke. “You've called all the staff together, have you, Helga?”

“Yes, Sir Nevile,” said Helga. “Just as you asked.” She hesitated, and then said, “May I ask what this announcement is going to be about?”

“Of course you may,” said Sir Nevile. “This department, the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction, is being outsourced.” He turned to Simon. “Isn't it, Simon?”

Simon nodded his head.

Sir Nevile turned back to Helga. “You know Simon, don't you, Helga? He's the Director of the Department of Departmental Outsourcing.”

“Yes,” said Helga. “I've met Simon a few times over the years when I've inspected Simon's department.”

Simon spoke. “Your department is indeed being outsourced, Helga. You know how keen the government is these days on outsourcing. It's all about efficiency and cost reduction. So really it's quite appropriate this department should be outsourced. It also has the advantage of taking employees off the government's books so that it makes the State look as though it's employing fewer people than it really is. Everything has been agreed and authorized, and the transfer will go ahead in a matter of days to a company run by Peter here.” He tilted his head in the direction of Peter.

“What?” said Helga, obviously astonished. “You must be joking. He worked here for a few weeks, and now he's taking over the running of the department and in effect he'll own it?”

“That's right,” said Simon. “Peter is a very clever and able young man. Also his father is a very experienced businessman and he is going to be involved in the managing of the company. Plus you have to bear in mind that the existing staff, with their wealth of experience and ability, are being retained by Peter's company.” He turned to Peter. “Is that no so, Peter?”

“All the Inspectors are being retained,” said Peter.

“All the Inspectors?” Helga echoed. “And what about me?”

“With my father being Managing Director and overseeing operations, it's difficult to see what need there would be for a Head of Department,” said Peter. “Indeed there will be no 'department' as such. There is only going to be 'the company'.”

Helga turned to Sir Nevile. “If you think you can push me out of my secure employment in the public sector that easily, Sir Nevile,” she said in a hard voice, “you are very much mistaken. I know all about your daughter and her fictitious employment in this department.”

“I know you do, Helga,” said Sir Nevile. He was perfectly relaxed.

“I'm going to take that information to the very top,” said Helga threateningly. “It'll cause such a scandal that it'll ruin your career.” She turned to Jeffrey. “And yours too, Jeffrey.”

“I think not, Helga,” said Jeffrey. Just like Sir Nevile, he was very relaxed.

“What?” said Helga. There was disbelief in her voice.

Sir Nevile spoke. “You see, Helga,” he said, “your record is not entirely unblemished.”

“There's nothing I've ever done wrong,” said Helga.

“Perhaps you can explain then,” said Sir Nevile, “why you authorized Peter here - someone who had worked in the public sector for only a matter of weeks - to receive a pension and payoff that only someone who has worked in the public sector for thirty years or more is entitled to receive.”

There was silence in the room. Then Helga said, “I was pressured by the head of Peter's union, Nigel Dudley-Farker, to do that.”

“Really, Helga!” said Sir Nevile with an affectation of shock. “Fancy trying to drag a respectable person down with such a tawdry allegation. Are you saying you have it in writing that Nigel forced you break public sector rules?”

“Not in writing,” said Helga. “No. But I can phone him and …”

Sir Nevile interrupted her. ”… and you imagine that he will back up your allegation against him? Where are your brains this morning, Helga?”

Helga was silent for a long time. Then she said almost pitifully, “It simply isn't fair that you're taking my job away from me. This department has been my whole life.”

“But who said you're going to be without a job?” said Sir Nevile. “And who said this department will be taken away from you?” He turned to Peter. “Peter, perhaps you could explain your idea.”

Peter addressed Helga. “My company would conditionally like to offer you the position of Chief Administrative Officer at a salary twenty percent greater than you are currently receiving here. Your duties would be to organize the company's Public Sector Inspectors and oversee all aspects of their activities. You would report directly to my father.”

“But that is a conditional offer?” Helga queried him. “What is the condition?”

Peter turned to Sir Nevile. “Sir Nevile, perhaps you'd like to spell out the conditions.”

Sir Nevile spoke to Helga. “Actually, Helga, there are three conditions, but I think you'll find them all to your liking.” He paused.

“I'm listening,” said Helga.

“You may be wondering why Nick Jenks is here,” said Sir Nevile. He smiled. “You remember you sacked him?”

Helga turned to Nick. “I'm sorry about that, Nick,” she said. “That was mean-spirited of me. If you gave me information I could use to get rid of Peter here, I said I'd give you the job of …”

”… Public Sector Inspector Inspector,” said Nick, interrupting her. He smiled. “Don't worry, Helga, because that's the position I now hold in Peter's company.”

Sir Nevile spoke again. “The first condition then, Helga, is that you have no objection to Nick holding that post if you come and work for Peter's company.”

Nick spoke. “I would be reporting directly to you, Helga, on how well the company's Public Sector Inspectors are carrying out their work.”

Helga nodded her head. “I don't object at all,” she said. “In fact I now see it would be quite useful to have someone doing that. It would free me up to focus on getting the right Inspectors to inspect the right departments at the right times and then I could get on with dealing in an appropriate way with the reports that they produce.”

Sir Nevile spoke. “Good,” he said. “So that's the first condition met. The second condition is this. You're not entitled to the maximum public sector pension and payoff yet. You've been here a long time, but not long enough for that. However, I want you to accept a pension and payoff that you would only normally be entitled to if you had worked in the public sector for thirty years.” He paused, and then said, “I can make that happen.”

“That seems a strangely generous condition,” said Helga. “Yet it would also be illegal.”

“No more illegal than you authorizing Peter to have such a pension after he'd worked here for only a matter of weeks,” said Sir Nevile. He was silent for a moment, then said, “Perhaps when you hear the third condition you will understand why we want you to agree to the second one.”

“And the third condition is ..?” said Helga.

”… that you never reveal that my daughter was for years paid by the public sector even though she never did anything or even turned up,” said Sir Nevile.

“How does that connect with the second condition?” Helga asked.

“You are already complicit in unlawfully diverting public sector money to another person, namely Peter,” said Sir Nevile. “If you accept a public sector pension you are not entitled to, you are also complicit in unlawfully diverting public sector money to yourself.” He paused. “The knowledge that both those things could be revealed will doubly bind you to keeping your word on the second condition.”

Helga didn't speak. Clearly she was thinking through the benefits and risks of the proposal. She was well aware that she had been presented with both carrots and the sticks. Eventually she said simply, “I accept all three conditions.” She turned to Peter. “I look forward to working for your company, Peter.” She turned to Nick. “And I look forward to working with you again, Nick.”

Sir Nevile clapped his hands. “Excellent,” he said. He stood up. “Let's go and tell the assembled Inspectors about the change in their employment that awaits them. Lead the way, Helga.”

Smiling, Helga stood up and led the five men out of the office to go and announce to the department's Inspectors that they would soon have a new employer, but that their conditions of employment would be exactly as they were now.

Everyone was happy.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Some weeks later, a couple of little groups of people were standing on the back lawn outside the Patter family home. Near the people was a large table spread with plates of fine food. There were jugs of iced water and fruit juices, and in coolers there were bottles of Champagne. Indeed everyone was drinking Champagne, except for Sophie, who was drinking chilled juice. In one little huddle there was Sir Nevile, Jeffrey and Simon, talking together. In a circle nearby were Peter, Sophie, David, Margaret and Helga. Peter was talking to Helga.

“So,” he said “the company structure is that Sophie and I own the company. Sophie and my mother Margaret here are nominally directors, but they play no active part in the running of the company. Then of course you know that my dad David here is the managing director because you report to him. He oversees the day to day running of the company. But I'm also a director. I take a hands-off role, but dad liaises with me and keeps me informed of how things are going. However, I also keep an independent eye on the company's finances.” He took a sip of his Champagne. “After all, it is my company.” Then he looked over at Sophie and corrected himself. “Or rather, our company.”

“And I'll keep reporting solely to David, not to you?” Helga asked.

“That's right,” said Peter. “But both of us will be keeping a close eye on the company's financial affairs. Making sure that we get the money due to us from the government. That sort of thing.” Peter glanced at the expensive watch on his wrist. “I wonder where Nick and Issie are,” he said. “They should be here by now.”

“Here they are,” said Helga, spotting Nick and Issie walking across the lawn towards them. The couple joined Peter's little group.

“Sorry we're late, Peter,” said Nick. “Hello, Sophie. Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Patter. Hi, Helga. We didn't realize what the time was. We were celebrating a bit of good news. Issie's pregnant.”

“No way!” exclaimed Sophie. “Peter and I were just going to announce the same good news about me.”

“Well, you kept quiet about that, Sophie, dear,” said Margaret.

“That is good news,” said David.

Issie gave Sophie a big hug. “I'm so pleased for you,” she said.

“And I'm really pleased for you too, Issie,” said Sophie.

“Congratulations to you both,” said Helga.

Sir Nevile came over, followed by Jeffrey and Simon. “Did I hear anything that should remotely concern me?” he said. He turned to Helga and indicated Issie. “This, by the way, is my daughter, Issie. Or Isabel if you prefer.” He gave a little laugh. “I'm surprised you didn't recognize her. After all, she worked in your department in the public sector for several years.”

Helga laughed and looked at Issie. “So this is the elusive Miss Isabel Grevile. As I remember, you always took a lot of time off work. A great deal of time in fact. But it's lovely to meet you at last.” Helga gave Issie a hug.

“I'm not going to be Miss Isabel Grevile for much longer,” said Issie. “I'm going to be Mrs. …”

Nick interrupted her. “Let's try to do this properly, Issie,” he said. He turned to Sir Nevile. “Sir Nevile,” he said, “I would like to ask you for your daughter's hand in marriage.”

“So you've got my daughter pregnant, and now you're telling me you want to marry her?” said Sir Nevile. He sighed, and feigned a look of disappointment. We never used to do it in that order in my day.” He let out a little chuckle. “Alright,” he said. “Actually it happened quite a lot.” He held out a hand. “You have my blessing, Nick. I couldn't wish for a nicer son-in-law.”

With relief at the response, Nick shook Sir Nevile's hand.

Peter spoke. “Of course you all know Sophie and I are getting married, and now you know Sophie's also pregnant.” He turned to Nick and Issie. “Let's make it three things we have in common. Let's have a joint wedding ceremony.”

“I like that idea,” said Issie.

“Me too,” said Nick.

“Sophie and I have booked the local church for three weeks time,” said Peter. “I could have a word with the vicar and say all four of us want to have our two wedding ceremonies together.”

“Let's go for it,” said Nick.

“It's a great idea,” said Issie. She turned to her father. “Dad,” she said, “do you approve? Will you come to my wedding?”

“You don't need my approval, Issie,” said Sir Nevile, “but if you want it, you've got it. And wild horses couldn't keep me from your wedding. It will be one of the proudest days of my life. The proudest in fact.”

Issie gave her father a big hug.

“Everyone, top up your glasses of Champagne,” said Peter. “I want to propose a toast to us.”

Everyone went over to the table. Those already with glasses of Champagne topped them up. Nick poured himself a glass of the same drink. Sophie topped up her glass of fruit juice, and Issie also helped herself to fruit juice.

Issie whispered to Sophie. “I thought a few months without alcohol might be appropriate.”

“That's what I thought too,” Sophie whispered back.

Peter moved a short distance away from the group. Everyone turned to face him.

“Weddings,” said Peter. “Children on the way. If those aren't things to celebrate, I don't know what is.”

There was a murmur of approval from the others.

“But also,”Peter went on, “we have a new company that is successfully up and running and providing for all of us. He took a sip of his Champagne and smiled. “And for those of us yet to be born,” he added.

There was a little ripple of laughter.

“And all courtesy of the generosity of the government,” said Peter.

The laughter was stronger this time.

“That is,” said Peter, “generosity with the money of those people foolish enough or unlucky enough to give to the government rather than take from it.” He took another sip of his Champagne, then went on, “The transfer of the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction over to our company, Public Sector Inspectors Incorporated, has gone through without a hitch.”

Issie spoke up. “Our company?” she said. “Don't forget that there's one person here - only one - who isn't part of the company.”

Peter smiled. “I'm sure we can put that right,” he said. “I had an idea of something to give you as a wedding present. It's an imaginary part-time job with the company. It doesn't pay hugely well, but it has this advantage.” He paused momentarily, and then said, “You don't have to do anything and you don't have to turn up for work.”

Everyone laughed, even Issie, who looked pleased but mildly shame-faced.

“I think,” Peter continued, “we have a lot to be grateful for, all courtesy of the public sector, channeling to us the taxes that the private sector pays, along with the money that the government borrows and that the private sector is responsible for trying to pay off.” He raised his glass. “Long may it continue like that, because our personal and financial success and satisfaction depends on it. The toast I propose therefore is this - to us, at the expense of others.”

Everyone cheered, raised their glasses and drank to Peter's toast. “To us,” they all echoed, “at the expense of others.”

Sophie, David, Margaret, Nick, Issie and Helga gathered together and started to chatter noisily, but Sir Nevile, Jeffrey and Simon came over to Peter.

“Peter,” said Sir Nevile, “we just wanted to say thank you for getting that money transferred to us.”

“A million each,” said Jeffrey. “A nice tidy sum.”

“It took a while to get some foreign bank accounts sorted out,” said Simon, “but at least it keeps the money out of the hands of the tax man.”

Peter nodded his head understandingly. “There's no point paying taxes to the government,” he said. “They'd only squander the money.”

“Too true,” said Sir Nevile. He took a sip of his Champagne. “Listen, Peter,” he went on. “This outsourcing of a public sector department to your company has worked out pretty well. Give it a few more months to prove your company can do a good job, then we have an idea.”

“Yes,” said Jeffrey. “We thought we could find another department to outsource to you.”

“I'm sure I'd be able to approve it,” said Simon with a sly wink.

“And I'd be able to offer you financial assistance,” said Jeffrey, “in the form of non-repayable grants, of course.”

“What do you say, Peter?” said Sir Nevile.

“I think that's a very good idea, gentlemen,” said Peter. “A very good idea indeed. After all, we must play as active a role as possible in helping the government spend other people's money, mustn't we?”

The other men smiled and nodded their heads in agreement.

Let's go and join the others,” said Peter.

Sipping at their drinks, the four men wandered over to the others, and, knowing that they all had bright, secure, prosperous futures ahead of them, they joined in happily with the conversation, while elsewhere other people toiled to make their pleasant lifestyle possible.

The End


Fiction | Devtome Writers


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