The hotel was big and rather famous, ostentatious if not downright flamboyant, within easy walking distance of Whitehall , and... not entirely what it seemed to be. Its t op floor was totally given over to a company of inter­ national entrepreneurs, which was the sum total of the hotel manager's knowledge about it. The occupants of that unknown upper region had their own elevator at the rear of the building, private stairs also at the rear and entirely closed off from the hotel itself, even their own f ire escape. Indeed they - 'they' being the only identific ation one might reasonably apply in such circumstances - owned the top floor, and so fell entirely outside the hotel's sphere of control and operation. Except that from the outside looking in, few would suspect that the building in totalwas anything other than what it purported to be; which was exactly the guise or aspect - or lack of such - which 'they' wished to convey.
As for the 'international entrepreneurs' - whatever such creatures might be - 'they' were not. In fact they were a branch of Government, or more properly a subsidi­ary body. Government supported them in the way a tree supports a small creeper, but their roots were wholly separate. And similarly, because they were a very tiny parasite, the vast bulk of the tree was totally unaware of their presence. As is the case with so many experimental, unproven projects, their funding was of a low priority, came out of 'petty cash'. The upkeep of their offices was therefore far and away top of the list where costing was concerned, but that was unavoidable.
For unlike other projects, the nature of this one demanded a very low profile indeed. Its presence in the event of discovery would be an acute embarrassment; it would doubtless be viewed with suspicion and scorn, if not disbelief and downright hostility; it would be seen as a totally unnecessary expenditure, a needless burden on the taxpayer, a complete waste of public money. Nor would there be any justifying it; the benefits or fruits of its being remained as yet entirely conjectural and the mildest 'frost' would certainly put paid to them. The same principles apply to any such organisation or service: it must (a) be seen to be effective while paradoxically (b) maintaining its cloak of invisibility, its anonymity. Ergo: to expose such a body is to kill it...
Another way to dispose of this sort of hybrid would be, quite simply, to tear up its roots and deny it had ever existed. Or wait for them to be torn up by some outside agency and then fail to replant them.
Three days ago there had occurred just such an uproot­ ing. A major tendril had been broken, whose principal function it had been to bind the vine to its host body, providing stability. In short, the head of the branch had suffered a heart attack and died on his way home. He had had a bad heart for years, so that wasn't strange in itself - but then something else had happened to throw a different light on the matter, something Alec Kyle didn't want to dwell on right now.
For now, on this Monday morning of an especially chilly January, Kyle, the next in line, must assess the damage and feasibility of repairs; and if such repairs were at all possible, then he must make his first groping attempt to pull the thing back together. The project's foundations had always been a little shaky but now, lacking positive direction and leadership, the whole show might well fall apart in very short order. Like a sand-castle when the tide comes in.
These were the thoughts in Kyle's head as he stepped from the slushy pavement through swinging glass doors into a tiny foyer, shook damp snow from his overcoat and turned the collar down. It was not that he personally had any doubt as to the validity of the project - in fact the opposite applied: Kyle believed the branch to be all- important -but how to defend his position in the face of all that scepticism from above? Scepticism, yes. Old Gormley had been able to pull it off, with all his friends in high places, his 'old school tie' image, his authority and enthusiasm and sheer get-up-and-go, but men such as Keenan Gormley were few and far between. Even fewer now.
And this afternoon at four o'clock Kyle wouldbe called upon to defend his position, the validity of his branch's being, its very existence. Oh, they'd been quick off the mark, right enough, and Kyle believed he knew why. This was it, the crunch. With nothing to show for five years' work, the project was to be terminated. No matter what arguments he produced, he'd be shouted down. Old Gormley had been able to shout louder than all of them put together; he'd had the clout, the back-up; but Alec Kyle - who was he? In his mind's eye, he could picture the afternoon's inquisition right now:
'Yes, Minister, I'm Alec Kyle. My function in the Branch? Well, apart from being second in command to Sir Keenan, I was - I mean I am - er, that is to say, I prognosticate ... I beg your pardon? Ah, it means I foresee the future, sir. Er, no, I have to admit that I probably couldn't give you the winner of the 3:30 at Goodwood tomorrow. My awareness generally isn't that specific. But -'
But it would be hopeless! A hundred years ago they wouldn't accept hypnotism. Only fifteen years ago they were still laughing at acupuncture. So how could Kyle hope to convince them in respect of the branch and its work? And yet, on the other hand, coming through all the despondency and sense of personal loss, there was this other thing. Kyle knew it for what it was: his 'talent', telling him that all was not lost, that somehow he would convince them, that the branch would go on. Which was why he was here: to go through Keenan Gormley's things, prepare some sort of case for the branch, continue fighting its cause. And again Kyle found himself wondering about his strange talent, his ability to glimpse the future.
For the fact was that last night he had dreamed that the answer lay right here, in this building, amongst Gormley's papers. Or perhaps 'dreamed' was the wrong word for it. Kyle's revelations - his glimpses of things which had not yet happened, future occurrences -invariably came in those misty moments between true sleep and coming awake, immediately prior to full con­scious awareness. The clamour of his alarm-clock could do it, set the process in motion, or even the first crack of sunlight through his bedroom window. That's what it had been this morning: the grey light of another grey day invading his room, getting under his eyelids, impressing upon his idly drifting mind the fact that another day was about to be born.
And with it had been born a vision. But again, 'glimpse' might be a better word for it, for that wasall Kyle's talent had ever permitted: the merest glimpse. Knowing this - and knowing that it would only occur once and then be gone forever - he had fastened upon it. absorbed it. He dared not miss a thing. Everything be had ever 'seen' in this way had always proved to be vitally important.