London, 2045. Three months into the Coffee Wars and Britain’s caffeine supplies are at critical levels. Brits are drinking even more tea than usual, keeping a stiff upper lip and praying for an end to it all.
A secret government coffee stockpile promises to save the day … but then mysteriously disappears overnight.
One man is asked to unravel the missing-coffee mystery. Hs name is Pond. Howie Pond. And he’s in desperate need of a triple espresso. Meanwhile, his journalist wife, Britt, is hunting royal fugitive, Emma Windsor, on the streets of the capital.
Can Howie save the British Republic from caffeine-starved chaos? Will the runaway royal be found? And just what will desperate coffee drinkers do for their caffeine fix? Find out, in Paul Mathews’ latest comedy adventure set in the Britain of the future …
Paul Mathews is a 40-something British guy who’s given up his 9-to-5 job in London to become a full-time comedy novelist. Why did he make this bold step? Well, he’d had enough of crazy managers and uncooperative printers. So one afternoon, after nearly 20 years working at the heart of the British Government, he shut down his computer, deleted all his emails and escaped the office – never to return. (Okay, it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that, but he is a fiction writer, so please cut him a little slack.)
His two decades working as a Government press officer gave him an invaluable insight into all the key elements of modern government: bureaucracy, bungling, buffoonery, buck-passing and other things that don’t begin with the letter ‘b’ – such as politicians with huge egos and very little talent. He’s now putting that knowledge to use by writing about a British Government of the future – where, believe it or not, the politicians are even bigger idiots than the current lot.
Before becoming a PR guy, he was an accountant. But he doesn’t like to talk about that. And going back further, he went to Cambridge University and studied philosophy. Despite thousands of hours of thoughtful contemplation, he still hasn’t worked out how that happened. The highlight of his university years was receiving a £300 travel grant to visit Prague and ‘study philosophy’. It was a trip which ignited his love of Eastern Europe where he spends a lot of time writing and drinking black beer.
Other interests include wearing sunglasses and having his photograph taken. Visit his website for more info on this (allegedly) humorous man: www.iamthe.website
Howie sank into his synth-leather office chair, shoved a pile of newspapers to one side, and slapped a white plastic cup on his desk. As steam rose from the small opening in the top of the cup, the faint aroma of coffee entered his nostrils. Except that it wasn’t coffee. At least, not coffee as he knew it. The last real cup of coffee had been served in the Buckingham Palace canteen last week. And now he and all the other civil servants who spent Mondays to Fridays toiling away in this building for the good of the British Republic were being expected to jumpstart their days with something called ‘pseudo-caf’. It was a dumb name, Howie thought. Probably dreamt up by some hyperactive marketing trainee fresh out of college who’d never had to consume any kind of workplace stimulant in their life. And the adverts the marketeers had devised were even more annoying than the name of the product they were promoting. The thirty-second commercials had been popping up on Howie’s digi-screen all weekend, with bold promises that coffee drinkers would ‘be surprised’. But Howie didn’t want to be surprised. It was 9.00am on a Monday morning at the end of one of the toughest months in the British Republic’s sixteen-year history. He wanted the same thing he’d always wanted at the start of his working week: to jolt his body into first gear with a massive caffeine injection. This would allow him to gradually move up the gears, until his unread e-comms were only in the low hundreds. Then he could refuel at lunchtime with a pie and a pint at the Two Chairmen pub in St James’ Park. And, on his return, he would ease off the accelerator by immersing himself in the day’s press coverage, delegating journalist enquiries to his press officers, and generally making himself look busy so no one would disturb him. Yes, that was how he liked to start his working week in Westminster. But there was just one small problem with his Monday masterplan. Pseudo-caf, as its name suggested, contained no actual caffeine – just a low-grade substitute. So there was only one thing that this cheap and miserable excuse for a morning beverage was guaranteed to stimulate – a massive sense of disappointment.
As Howie picked up the cup, all the espressos, mochas and cappuccinos that had stood on his desk over the last fifteen years flashed before his eyes. He realised now that he hadn’t fully appreciated them at the time. Back then, they’d been just another part of his working day. But now they were gone, they were all he could think about. He was filled with a sickening sense of guilt when he remembered how one or two of them had sat there, going cold, and had eventually ended up being tossed in the rubbish. Then an idea came to him. Perhaps there was still a discarded coffee cup round here from last week, with traces of real coffee clinging to the bottom? Just a few drops of the real stuff might kick-start his system. But he quickly jettisoned that idea. He wasn’t that desperate. Not yet. Though he might review the situation in ten minutes’ time.
Howie reached out his right hand, picked up the plastic cup and brought it to his nose. It no longer smelt of coffee, so the chances of it tasting anything remotely like it were practically zero by now. But he’d paid ten pounds for it, so he should at least try some. He muttered a quick prayer to the caffeine gods and then jerked the cup back to his lips. A brown sludge hit his tongue like a hilltop mudslide. Before he had time to react, a cocktail of chemicals smothered his taste buds and instantly made him want to vomit. He somehow managed to slap a hand across his mouth, massage his throat and force it down. Once he was sure his mouth was sludge-free, he grimaced and released the kind of lingering groan usually only expressed by newly disturbed corpses.
Once the urge to be sick finally subsided, he stood up and marched to the waste disposal area in the corridor outside. While he was deciding which of the twenty-four different metal plates to place the cup on, a booming Irish voice interrupted his thoughts. It belonged to his chief press officer, Conor O’Brean.
‘I see you’ve already experienced the delights of pseudo-caf, sir.’
‘That’s one way of putting it,’ replied Howie, dropping the cup onto a random waste disposal plate. A hole opened up and the cup disappeared down a chute with an impressive whooshing sound.
‘I managed to drink half a cup of it by holding my nose. But I don’t feel stimulated in the slightest.’ Conor put his hand against the wall for support. ‘When do you think this coffee chaos is going to end, sir?’
‘It depends on how long these Coffee Wars drag on. Though with that idiot Ruffle in charge of global trade negotiations, I don’t hold out much hope for a swift resolution.’
Conor fumbled with his emerald-green tie. ‘You know me, sir. I never like to say a bad word about our esteemed political colleagues. But, in Vice President Ruffle’s case, I’ll make an exception.’ He took a step nearer to Howie and lowered his voice. ‘You know, I caught him stealing one of our doughnuts on his last visit to the press office.’
Howie took a moment to digest this shocking news. ‘You are joking?’
Conor shook his head. ‘Doughnut theft is no laughing matter, sir. He was as drunk as a prince, which is the only mitigating factor in his defence.’
‘For king’s sake!’ cursed Howie. ‘Was this on Friday?’
Howie rolled his eyes. ‘Ruffle is always drunk on a Friday.’
‘And a good few Thursdays, too. And one or two Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, now I come to think about it.’
An authoritative electronic voice interrupted their conversation. ‘Incorrect waste disposal selection. Please try again.’ Howie’s plastic coffee cup zipped back out of the chute and the hole closed below it, so it stood once again on a metal plate.
‘Even the waste disposal units won’t drink this synthetic muck,’ grumbled Howie.
‘Allow me,’ replied Conor, picking up the cup and placing it on a different metal plate. ‘This chute accepts any old rubbish.’ And the cup disappeared with a whoosh for a second time.
‘Yeah, well, I think you’ll find the British public only accept the best when it comes to their coffee. They won’t put up with drinking this crap for too long.’
‘I think the more high-end synthetic coffee is a bit more drinkable, sir. You’ve got to pay for it, though – up to six times the price of the real thing.’
‘Six times?! That’s ridiculous!’
‘Supply and demand, sir. Someone’s making money out of it, that’s for sure.’ Conor tapped his nose. ‘And, of course, some people round here have their own plentiful supplies of the real stuff.’
Howie’s ears pricked up. ‘Who do you mean? Retail coffee ran out six weeks ago. And the rules were the same for everyone – one coffee item per citizen per week until the shelves were empty.’
Conor checked that no one was within listening distance. ‘Let’s just say, some people in positions of power consider themselves to have more rights than the average citizen.’
‘You mean vice presidents?’
‘Higher than that.’
‘You’re saying the president has got a secret coffee stash?’
‘Correct, sir. I saw it with my own eyes.’
This was a stunning revelation. President Winner prided himself on his man-of-the-people image. If word got out that he was secretly stashing coffee, it could create a media storm that Howie and his press officers would be dealing with for weeks. But, much more importantly, it meant there was real coffee within a hundred-metre radius.
‘When did you see this?’ asked Howie.
‘I turned up a little early for President Winner’s interview with The Republican newspaper last Tuesday. He was getting ready for his Las Vegas trip and his office was a terrible mess. I was waiting for the great man to get himself organised, when I spotted the packets of coffee in one of his desk drawers.’
Howie could feel his pulse quickening. ‘What were they? Just your normal instant or something a bit more special?’
‘Oh, they were special, sir.’ Conor’s eyes drifted upwards as he relived the memory. ‘Very special.’
‘Come on,’ urged Howie. ‘Don’t keep me in suspense. What was it?’
‘Brazilian premium roasted,’ announced Conor, as if delivering a message from the caffeine gods.
Howie gasped. ‘How many packets?’
‘Half a dozen, I’d say. Enough to keep you and me in triple espressos for a fortnight, at least.’
‘Does anyone else know about it?’ asked Howie, his voice trembling.
‘No one within my personal coffee-drinking circle, sir. I was thinking we could just keep this between ourselves. And …’ Conor turned away.
‘And what, Conor?’
‘No. It’s a bad idea.’
‘Forget I said anything.’
‘You haven’t said anything yet, so just tell me what you were going to say!’ shouted Howie, loudly enough for someone fifty metres down the corridor to stick their head out of an office door, tut in his direction and then retreat back inside.
Conor fished a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, placed it over his mouth and began explaining. ‘I was thinking that maybe we could locate some of that coffee in the president’s private office and … how shall we say, sir? Borrow it.’
‘Yes. Until such time as Brazilian premium roasted is back on the supermarket shelves.’
‘But what about the private secretaries? They’re always in there.’
‘Not right now, sir. I popped round five minutes ago. There’s a message on the digi-screen above the door saying they’re having one of those new VideoSat conferences with the president in the Tech lounge and they’ll be back at ten o’clock.’ He cleared his throat noisily. ‘So we could go round there right now. Our new digi-passes should get us in.’
Howie’s head was telling him that breaking into the president’s desk while he was away at a presidential summit and ‘borrowing’ his coffee probably wasn’t the professional or ethical thing to do. But it was a Monday and he was already feeling ratty without his usual caffeine fix. So what the hell. ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ He took a deep breath. ‘And there’s no time like the present.’
Without another word, they hurtled up the corridor as fast as two overweight, caffeine-starved, middle-aged men could travel until they arrived at the office of President Zayn Winner. Conor touched his digi-pass to a keypad and the metal door slid open. Just as the digi-screen outside had promised, there was nobody in the office.
‘Which desk was it?’ asked Howie, as the door slid shut.
Conor pointed towards the far corner of the room. ‘That one over there, sir – bottom drawer.’
Howie rushed over to the desk and grabbed the drawer’s handle. But it wouldn’t budge. ‘It’s locked. Do you know where the key is?’
‘No. But it can’t be far away.’ Conor wandered over and began searching through the various stationery holders on the desk. ‘He usually hides his keys in one of these little fellas.’
After a few minutes of frantic searching, they still hadn’t located the key.
‘I know!’ announced Howie, pointing at a row of golden trophies on one of the bookshelves. ‘Let’s try under his Hollywood awards.’
Conor, who was considerably taller than Howie, reached up and grabbed the biggest statue – a large golden orb. He brought it down and squinted at the inscription. ‘First place in the 2037 Hollywood all-comers ping-pong tournament.’
‘The pinnacle of his career,’ noted Howie drily.
Conor rummaged on the shelf where the award had been standing. ‘No key here, sir. I’ll try the one next to it.’ Conor replaced the trophy and picked up its neighbour – a mounted silver face mask – and read its inscription. ‘This one is for Hollywood nose job of the year, 2035.’
‘Are there any you can see for his acting?’
Conor went on tiptoes and surveyed the row of golden trophies. ‘No, I can’t see any accolades for his thespian pursuits, sir.’
‘Not surprising, if you’ve seen his movies.’ Howie surveyed the office. ‘The president’s autobiography is around here somewhere. He reads it every day. I’m pretty sure it’s the only book he’s ever read – not counting comic books. He probably slips the desk key in between the pages.’
Conor picked up a book in the middle of the president’s desk and read the title. ‘Once a Winner, Always a Winner.’
‘That’s the one. Have a quick flick through it.’
Conor obeyed the instruction and, to Howie’s delight, a small key dropped out.
‘We’ve struck caffeine gold, sir!’ shouted Conor.
Howie couldn’t help whooping in delight and performing a little jig around the desk. ‘Howie Pond and Conor O’Brean – coffee hunters of the year, 2045!’
Conor grinned. ‘Your Irish dancing leaves a lot to be desired, sir.’
‘Just get that key in the bloody lock and let’s free this coffee from captivity!’
The pair of them giggled like naughty schoolboys and knelt down beside the drawer. The key fitted perfectly, the drawer slid open and they were soon each holding three packets of Brazilian premium roasted coffee.
They barely had time to congratulate themselves before the office door slid open and the familiar figure of Martha Blake, Head of the National Security and Intelligence Service, was standing in front of them – looking slightly startled.
Martha’s eyes flicked around the scene of the caffeine crime. ‘Would one of you two gentlemen care to explain what you’re doing?’
Howie raised his eyebrows in greeting. ‘Ah, how lovely to see you, Martha. The two of us were just, erm …’ He turned to Conor. ‘Remind me what we were doing again, Conor.’
‘Erm … just testing the robustness of the president’s desk security, madam. And I regret to inform you that the key to the president’s desk drawer was relatively easy for us to locate.’
‘Yes, th-th-that’s right,’ stuttered Howie. ‘I’ll have a word with the security people.’ He gazed down at his coffee booty. ‘Probably best if Conor and I look after this little lot for the time being – until the president gets back from Vegas.’
Martha stared at them in disbelief. ‘I wasn’t born yesterday. You were liberating the president’s personal coffee stash.’ She sighed wearily. ‘And I suggest you put it back.’
Howie paused to think. ‘Could we maybe just take a packet each?’
Martha’s arched eyebrows informed them this wasn’t going to be an option.
‘Maybe we could just share a packet between us?’ suggested Conor.
‘Put it all back where you found it. And then, as far as I’m concerned, if anyone asks, that’s all you did – find it and put it back.’
‘Don’t people who return things to their rightful owner normally receive a reward?’ enquired Conor, with a hopeful grin.
‘Not always. Now go back to the press office, Conor. I have business with your boss.’
This was a double blow. Not only was Howie having to give up his recently discovered coffee treasure, Martha had business with him. And that could only mean one thing – large amounts of work for Howie on a Monday. Possibly running into Tuesday. Maybe even for the rest of the week.
Howie and Conor reluctantly returned the coffee to its hiding place. Then Conor popped the key back in the book and left the room in chastened silence.
Martha walked up to Howie with a determined glint in her eyes. ‘Now, Howie, you can escort me to the White Drawing Room. You and I are going to have a little chat.’
Howie’s heart sank into his socks. Little chats always meant big trouble.
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