Line of Descent chapter 1
Coole, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland.
The small village of Coole lay on the north-west coast of Ireland, on a flat rocky peninsular that jutted out defiantly into the Atlantic like a plucky bantamweight’s chin. From there came the ferocious winter storms that crashed ashore against its granite foundations like the end of creation. They had never managed to overcome it, never managed to smash it and suck the shattered remains back out to sea. It lay huddled, protected by stone walls and slate roofs while the storms shaved the shoreline of everything, living or dead, with a ferocity beyond description.
Its predominant colours were grey and deep dark blue, the colours of the mossy stone the houses were built from and the local slate used to roof them. It lay spread, like an untidy fan down to the sea front. Through it ran the main street, down to the small stone jetty that had served the fishermen when there had still been fish off the coast. That was all history now. Left to the factory ships and the deep-sea trawlers. All that remained were a few small row boats used to empty the lobster pots of their contents for sale to the big hotels down the coast.
The sea front was the centre of the place. It was where the pub and scattering of shops were. Where the occasional tourist came to buy a stamp for a postcard or have a drink and look out to sea while they downed it. The small village contained little of interest to them and was not particularly bothered in return. Life in it ticked over in its own well-worn grooves, modest but industrious.
Across the road from the hardware shop, Bingham watched through binoculars as the shop door opened and a bearded emaciated man emerged into the chilly winter morning. He walked to an old and battered car parked in front of the shop. He limped heavily and had the hunched over posture of the lifelong sufferer of bad health, that Bingham knew him to be. He paused for a moment, rooting in his pocket for the keys of the car, taking the opportunity to look about him. His dark eyes flicked from left to right, missing nothing.
Bingham smiled as he leaned back from the window to minimise the chance of detection by those sharp eyes. It was a mannerism he recognised. The casual but automatic alertness that separated the hunters and their quarry from ordinary people. Bingham was the hunter and the man below was his prey but they shared certain habits. Never waste a moment, always be aware of your surroundings, get to know the mundane because one day you might spot that small tiny difference that could save your life. The trainers had hammered that lesson into Bingham day after day until it had become second nature. Constant and unremitting suspicion became your way of life in order to safeguard your life. There were no days off nor anyone who was not a potential threat. A world in which there were no innocent remarks nor harmless people. It was very democratic, everyone and everything was worthy of suspicion.
By the time the man had completed his survey, his hand emerged from his pocket with a bunch of keys. After a brief interval of fumbling, he unlocked the car and got in awkwardly. The starter motor turned over with an asthmatic whine until the engine caught and burst into life with a small cloud of blue smoke, fracturing the stillness of the early morning.
Definitely needs a new set of rings, thought Bingham, not for the first time. He had watched the man for nearly two months. As always happens in such situations, you began to know their life intimately. The more you found out about them, the more involved you became. Their worries and concerns gradually became yours. Occasionally you had to resist the ludicrous temptation to go and have a word with them, to put them straight, get their lives into order. Well this one is about to be straightened out, thought Bingham with a touch of regret.
After a clunk from the gearbox, the man slipped the clutch and the car moved off up the street, heading out of town. Bingham tracked it with the binoculars. Just ahead of the approaching car, stood a woman and two young children, a girl and a boy. They were the only people around that early in the morning. She was holding their hands. They were all lined up looking into the window of a shop. He could see their hot breath fogging it up.
She was a good-looking woman, dressed in a tightly belted mackintosh with a head scarf tied about her head to ward off the biting cold. The children were well wrapped up too, wearing thick quilted anoraks with matching woollen hats and scarves. The girl’s blond hair was plaited into a long ponytail which hung down her back, neatly tied off with a small red ribbon. There was an animated discussion in progress. One of the children, the little boy, was pointing at something in the window. Christmas was approaching.
As the car drew abreast of them, it exploded with a roar that rocked the houses all around. The body shell disintegrated, showering the vicinity with red-hot fragments. Since the car was on their side of the road, the woman and children received the full force of the explosion. It simultaneously shredded them with bits of body work while the blast hurled them through the window, deep into the interior of the shop. It was like a magic trick, thought Bingham. One moment they were standing there, the next they flew, hand in hand through the window. The back blast from the wall of the building blew the remains of the car in the other direction. The chassis crashed to the ground upside down on the opposite side of the street.
The blast threw Bingham back from the window. Momentarily stunned, he shook himself and scrambled back to it and looked out. Somewhere a burglar alarm had gone off. Its insistent ringing cut through the frozen air ignored. Down below in the street, the remains of the car burned steadily, filling the air with the stench of burning petrol. People began to emerge dazed into the glass strewn street, mostly barefoot in pyjamas and dressing gowns. They helped each other.
Bingham looked towards the shop where the only evidence of the woman and the children was a crumpled woollen hat lying on the pavement. Oh fuck, he thought despairingly, it had all gone wrong. It wasn’t supposed to have gone off yet. He knew with a dreadful certainty that there would be no survivors and he also knew he would never forget what had happened today, nor his part in it.
Burham, Kent, England Eight months later.
PC Richards walked along the high street, heading towards the two-story detached house that served as Burham’s police station, at the start of another day’s duty. It stood at the edge of the village beside the road leading in to it and like all the other houses in the village, had its own carefully tended square of lawn, delineated by well looked after flower beds. The station Sergeant looked after it in his own time and at his own expense. He was an enthusiastic gardener and lavished as much effort and love on it as he did on his own. He could often be seen working on it, tunic off, sleeves rolled up and wearing old-fashioned braces over his blue shirt. On a summer’s evening, he would be there, kneeling down, hard at work with a trowel or hand fork when his shift was over.
The station could easily be mistaken for just another tidy detached house, except for the traditional blue light over the entrance and the notice board containing the wanted posters, with their grey blocky images of various felons. The pictures were regularly inspected and committed to memory by one or two elderly ladies of the village who felt it their civic duty to help as unpaid auxiliaries in the ceaseless fight against crime. They often discussed the miscreants with the Sergeant as he worked away in the garden, doing his best to humour them without giving offence. Given the village’s rural setting, deep in England’s garden county of Kent, the station was more than large enough to cater for the needs of an area that had not suffered a serious crime incident in living memory.
That suited Richards fine. He had grown up in the country and welcomed the peace of a posting to a rural patch. Though only out of Hendon, the police training college, a year and a half, he was beginning to acquire the confidence in his abilities that let him do his job without the constant anxiety that had plagued him as a rookie. He had always been that little bit too sensitive. It had worried his instructors and had nearly washed him out of Hendon, but there were two sides to it. It made him a far more caring officer and the fashion for community policing demanded more of its practitioners than the old-fashioned but harder virtues. In the end, they had given him the benefit of the doubt, consoling themselves with the thought that they had unleashed worse on the streets.
Life out here was good, he thought. It was just that bit too far from London, to have suffered from the invasion of the nouveau riche hordes thrown up by the boom times and easy money of the eighties. It was a country area, still predominantly inhabited by country people. What money there was in it, was old and established, free of the pretension and snobbery that characterised the newer variety. Out here, his knowledge of country people and their ways had helped him settle into the local community without more than the usual ripple caused by his calling. He walked with the spring in his step a young man has, who has just met a new girlfriend. Things were looking up on that front as well, he thought, looking forward to their second date that evening.
He diverted from his course, crossing the high street to enter the only shop in the village. It, as its garrulous proprietor was fond of saying, sold everything from Band-Aids to bananas, when they were in season. That caveat was always added, a habit of honesty on the part of the elderly spinster who had run it for most of her life. It had become his job to pick up the milk for the station on his way there in the morning. He had started it when a rookie, as a gesture to please, but now it had become a part of his going to work routine. As usual, she had kept a bottle of milk aside for them. They talked and he picked up a newspaper and a pack of cigarettes for the station Sergeant, a heavy smoker who would be running short about now at the end of the long night shift. Fully armed for another days policing, he thought with a wry smile.
Concluding his chat with the old dear, he left the shop. He smiled as he recalled his Sergeant’s expression for a chat, “keeping your ear to the ground.” As a rookie, the old bugger had invariably asked him that with a straight face when he came on duty. Had he had been keeping his ear to the ground? He recalled his deadly serious replies of yes and cringed ruefully at the memory.
At first the Sergeant had intimidated him with his years of service and depth of experience, but a bond of affection had grown up between the young policeman and the crusty old Sergeant with his stock of corny expressions, culled from a lifelong love of cowboy movies. Tom Mix, William S Hart and the other heroes of the Sergeant’s long gone youth were by now familiar figures to Richards, who had listened through many a long watch as the Sergeant regaled him with their adventures. He was right though, thought Richards. Keeping in touch was what this job was all about. There was not a person in the village he did not know and they all knew him in return, and liked the young constable.
He walked up the street and into the police station. The Sergeant was not at his usual place on the front desk, which puzzled him. He walked around behind it and into the office but he wasn’t there either. With growing curiosity, he checked the bathroom and the holding cell with no luck. Everything was quiet. That left the interview room. The door was closed, he noticed.
He opened it half way and poked his head around it, anxious not to disturb the Sergeant during an interview. The Sergeant lay slumped back in the interviewer’s chair. His head was thrown back over the top of it and his mouth gaped wide, revealing the silver fillings in his molars. A single trickle of blood ran down his cheek from his left eye, spilling down his neck and staining his collar. The blood was black and dried. A pencil stuck out of his eye. Richards stood frozen, halfway into the room. He was going into shock.
Advancing in a dreamlike trance into the room, he noticed for the first time, the body of PC Levitt laying on the floor beside the table. He knelt down slowly, putting his hand on Levitt’s neck, feeling for a pulse in the carotid artery as he had been trained to do. There was none.
A feeling of excruciating loneliness crashed down on him, twisting him double onto his knees. His stomach tightened into a painful knot. From between clenched teeth an animal keening sound escaped and he began to rock back and forth, his hand still on Levitt’s neck.