The Will of the People
Alexa knocked and entered C's office with some trepidation. Being summoned to see the chief usually meant there was trouble afoot. He looked an unassuming man plump and middle aged with scant brown hair and rounded glasses. However, he had the most incisive mind.
C looked up and waved her to sit down. 'You speak fluent Russian, don't you?'
'Yes, C. My mother's Russian and I studied there for six years.' The Russian course and her first serious romance were among her most vivid memories.
'Good, I need someone to do some digging. We're getting rumours someone's trying to influence the outcome of the European Union referendum.'
'And you suspect the Russians?'
He shrugged. 'I suggest looking for the money.'
The sentence told Alexa everything she needed to know. It was down to her to find out. She returned to her desk in a room where her four colleagues sat at computers. The windows were covered with blinds to stop anyone seeing in. A cool, grey light filtered through, but she couldn't see the view of the Thames the building commanded. When she'd arrived at work, persistent rain was falling, enough to dampen paths and persuade pedestrians to put up umbrellas. However, she didn't need to leave the office for this job yet.
First, she read all the reports and drew little diagrams with arrows and names, which she fed into encrypted files on the computer. If someone wanted to influence a referendum, they would need to pay for services or information. She contacted people in the Russian community and members of various political parties and factions.
A few weeks later, Alexa sat in a London restaurant with Gerald Grabber, one of the organisers of the 'Free UK' campaign. He had slicked down dark hair, dark eyes and a smile that struck her as sinister. She could tell he admired her. She'd taken the trouble to look glamorous - arranging her hair in a golden loop and wearing a black dress with a plunging neckline. In her best Russian accent, she explained she'd been sent by a Moscow lawyer who wanted to understand the referendum.
Gerald ate a big steak, washed down with plenty of wine, then sat back in his plush chair and talked. 'We want people to vote for freedom for the UK.' He raised his glass.
'Isn't the UK free anyway?'
'No. It's bound by the regulations of the European Union.'
'What regulations?' she asked. 'Ones that ban bent cucumbers?'
He laughed. 'No. Ones about worker's rights and environmental protection.'
'Are people going to vote for that?'
He shrugged. 'Most people are stupid.'
She realised what it was about his expression that bothered her. His lips smiled, but the expression in his eyes was harder, more cynical. It was the look of a predator. 'So, what do you need to influence the referendum?' she asked.
'Access to the social media accounts of the sort of people we think should vote for us.'
'And how do you get that?'
'Oh, there's plenty of dodgy computer firms that would do it for us. But they'll want paying. Big money.' He gave his predator's smile. 'I suppose these things are easier in your country. You just send in the heavy mob.'
'Certainly not. We respect the rule of law.'
Her next call was to TechnoWizard, in their glass and steel offices near Victoria Station. She was shown into a room full of computers running a variety of programs. The man who greeted her, Jackson Diggerman, was tall and slim, with neat grey hair and long, thin fingers. He spoke softly but fast, telling her about the data the company could obtain. He showed her lists of people with social media accounts. They could be categorised by age, sex, social class and political leanings.
'How much would it cost to buy enough data to influence a referendum?'
'That could be negotiated, but we're talking millions.'
'I'll talk to my contacts.'
Next, Alexa worked with her colleague, who everyone called the Demon Hacker, though he was a mild-mannered man. They tried to gain information on bank accounts in the UK, Switzerland and a number of tax havens. Some were easy to break into and others impossible. One day a large amount of money turned up in Gerald Grabber's bank account. They traced it to Switzerland but no further. There were rumours the source was a wealthy Russian with links to the Kremlin, but nothing could be proved. She reported her findings to C.
The day after the referendum, C called Sara into his office. 'Well, I suppose the politicians will say it's the will of the people. You and I know the people can be manipulated.'
'We don't know it's the Russians.'
'No. All we can do is leak the results of your investigation. Let people come to their own conclusions. ' Then he smiled. 'We may think the country's going to the dogs ,but we can give the dogs a bark.'