Line of Descent chapter 17
They stood silently around the console, looking at the blank screen of the monitor. While they had watched the miniature tableau unfold on it, a creeping sense of horror had held them in its grip, gluing them to the screen with a compulsive interest that only ended with the camera’s violent demise. Suddenly they were free. The spell was broken. Drayton looked around to see wide nervous eyes in pale faces. He had been shaken by it and was relieved to see he wasn’t alone. There had been a nightmarish quality about the whole thing. Like an anxiety dream where something terrible is happening and you’re standing on the sidelines, ignored and powerless to stop it. Krupmeyer was the one to break the silence.
‘Jesus, I never knew face painting could be that scary.’
It was a brave attempt at humour and the rest responded with quick nervous smiles, glad of any release of tension, no matter how bad the joke. Drayton realised with a momentary pang of guilt, that he was the one who should have made it. He was supposed to be the leader. He glanced across at Krupmeyer, remembering that he had seen action in the military. He had seen the elephant and it showed. The others stole glances in Drayton’s direction. He was the boss and they were waiting. Time to do something. Get them busy and take their minds off it. Do the leadership bit.
‘Neither did I’ replied Drayton continuing the joke. ‘I just wish the bastard had used his own blood.’ The others chuckled dutifully. It wasn’t the best comeback, he thought but it helped dispel the heavy mood.
‘They were unlucky to get caught changing shift’ commented Harting, as if the men at the gate had been a cricket side bowled out through a freakish accident. Drayton rounded on him furiously.
‘No. It wasn’t a matter of luck. He picked the time and the place, and they fell into it.’ He glared around him at the crowd that had gathered in the control room.
‘Get it through your heads right now. This man is a thinker and a planner. Everything he does is carefully thought out. There’s no luck involved. If you aren’t as sharp as he is, he’ll get you.’ He let it hang in the air as he looked from face to face.
‘Now it’s our turn. We’re going after him’ he continued in a businesslike tone of voice. He turned to Harting.
‘From now on, I don’t want anything done routinely around here. All schedules and routines are off. He knows them so we’re going to change them. Get someone out to find the roving patrols. Tell them what’s happened and tell them to stay within shouting distance of the house. I want one man positioned as lookout on each side of the building. Inside and on the first floor, at a window. How many men does that leave us spare?’ he asked Harting.
‘Well, assuming both shifts at the gate aren’t coming back, that leaves us with eighteen men, excluding yourselves’ he answered nodding at Drayton and Krupmeyer. ‘I’m not including the domestics, of course’ he added. Drayton thought it over quickly. They had to go on the offensive. Whatever happened, they mustn’t let him get near to the house. If he gets that close he can use explosives, and then we’re finished, he thought.
‘Right, the last place we saw him was at the gate. Are there any sensors on the road?’
‘No’ replied Harting. ‘The guards on the gate were supposed to stop anyone coming up it.’ Drayton wondered if Canfield knew that. Either way, advancing along the side of it would still be his best approach to the house.
‘OK. I want three men to set up an ambush on the road where it comes out of the forest. If they see anything, they’re to start shooting. Put out three two‑man ambushes on the other three sides of the house. Same orders, shoot at anything that moves. Tell them to stay within sight of the upstairs lookouts and make sure the lookouts know where the pickets are located.’ He did some quick mental arithmetic.
‘Excluding the six men on mobile patrol, that leaves five in the house, including ourselves’ he said pointing to Harting and himself. ‘I want one man to go and fetch help. He’s to leave in the opposite direction from the road and walk across country until he finds somewhere with a phone.’
A guard named Lomax immediately volunteered for the job. Drayton looked him over critically before assenting. He looked lean and fit, well able for a cross-country jog in the dark.
‘OK, don’t hang around, get going now.’ Lomax hurried from the room.
‘And that leaves four. We’re the reserve. If anyone hears shooting from one of the ambushes or mobile patrols, they’re to split up and send one man to it. Does everyone understand?’ he asked looking carefully about the room. Harting and the others nodded.
‘Right, get it organised. I’m going to see the Minister.’ He left the room and Krupmeyer trailed after him. Behind them, Harting started giving orders.
Outside in the hall, Krupmeyer put his hand on Drayton’s arm, stopping him.
‘Hey, isn’t there something I can do?’ he asked. Drayton turned to look at him.
‘Just stay out of the way, please. I’ve got enough on my plate at the moment. Sit back and enjoy the show.’ He turned to go but Krupmeyer held onto his arm.
‘No. You saw how he looked. He’s not taking any prisoners. We’re all in this together’ said Krupmeyer. Drayton looked at him speculatively. He was right. They might need all the help they could get before the night was out but they had not reached that stage yet.
‘OK, hunt up the kitchen. Tell them to start making sandwiches and hot drinks. Fill every thermos they’ve got. After that, have the head butler or whoever’s the boss down there report to me. I want to use them as messengers.’
Krupmeyer wandered off in search of the kitchen, not particularly pleased at the job but relieved nonetheless to be doing something. Drayton headed for Walters’ study. He would have to be told. Drayton just hoped he would be sensible. This was no time for a prima donna act.
He knocked on the door and entered without waiting. Walters looked up from the work on his desk, annoyed at the interruption.
Drayton marched over to a chair in front and sat down. Walters peered at him over the bifocals he never wore in public and waited, looking like a miffed schoolmaster awaiting an explanation from a particularly recalcitrant schoolboy. Drayton got straight to the point.
‘Canfield is in the grounds. He’s just killed the guard detail at the gate and their relief shift as well. All communication with the outside world has been cut. As of now, this house is under siege.’ He waited to let Walters digest it. He appeared to be taking it well. Good.
Walters placed the fountain pen he was still holding, down on the desk carefully and leaned back in the leather chair.
‘What are you doing about it?’ he asked.
‘I’ve sent a man for help and set up a defensive perimeter around the house. You’re safe.’
‘Good. Then you may leave me in peace to get on with my papers’ he said with a graceful wave to the paper strewn desktop. Well, I suppose that’s grace under pressure, thought Drayton.
‘I’m afraid I can’t’ said Drayton. ‘You’ll have to move to the control room and stay there until this thing is over.’
‘I thought you said I was safe?’
‘You’re safe as long as you do as you’re asked. Believe me, you’ll be safer in the control room. That’s where I’m going to be and I want you in sight at all times.’
Walters exhaled noisily, as if exasperated at this petty disturbance to his routine. Drayton could see the refusal forming in his mind before he opened his mouth.
‘No. I fail to see why I should accommodate myself to this maniac. I have complete faith in your abilities, my dear Drayton. I’m sure you’re doing a fine job.’ He finished with a patronising smile that snapped Drayton’s temper.
‘Listen to me, Sir. That maniac, as you call him, has just killed six men. It’s my job to keep you alive. I intend to do just that, with or without your co-operation. You’ll either move under your own steam or I’ll have you escorted there. Make your mind up’ he finished, standing up and leaning across the desk to push his face into Walters’.
Walters was taken aback by Drayton’s outburst. It had been a long time since anyone had spoken to him like that and it showed on his face. Drayton could see the outrage on it and enjoyed it, though he took pains not to show it.
Walters stared back at him. Drayton watched him realising that he’d meant every word he’d said. The outrage was gradually replaced by a good-natured smile but for a second, a very brief second, somewhere in between, the mask dropped to reveal in the moment of transition a glimpse of the spitefulness of a man who would one day have his revenge. Walters made a face-saving show of giving in graciously. Suddenly, he was all smiles.
‘My dear Drayton, if only I’d known you felt so strongly about this! Of course, I’ll do as you ask. Lead on, dear boy, lead on’ he said rising from the desk and collecting together the papers spread over its surface. He put them in the despatch box which he tucked under his arm.
‘Thank you for your co-operation, Sir’ said Drayton crossing the room to open the door for him. He knew he had just made a mortal enemy but couldn’t give a damn.
Krupmeyer finally located the kitchen. It was at the back of the house on the ground floor. He relayed Drayton’s orders and offered to help. Very soon he was elbowed aside by the staff who were impatient at how slowly he worked compared to their deft professional pace. One of them took the butter knife off him and picked a sandwich off the rapidly growing pile on the kitchen table.
‘Here, take a break’ she said handing it to him. He got the message and sat back to eat it.
His mind wandered over what he’d seen on the monitor screen while he reached automatically for another sandwich. He propped his heels on the edge of the table and tilted the chair back. He was hungrier than he thought. There was something familiar about the knife thing. He searched his memory until it came to him. The ranger scout.
It was early in his tour and he was still fairly green. He’d been choppered into the bush with a bunch of reinforcements to relieve a patrol that spent the whole night pinned down. They’d walked into an ambush the previous evening and had taken terrible casualties. All through the night, they’d kept at bay an enemy they could hardly see in the jungle darkness. In the end, they had only survived by calling in artillery firing missions almost on their perimeter. For some reason, they’d had a ranger scout with them. He’d spent the whole night crawling about the perimeter with a combat knife, stalking and killing the VC. Real Kit Carson stuff. Krupmeyer came across him sitting down in the evac area with the other casualties.
There wasn’t a scratch on him but he was a casualty none the less. He just sat there, looking at his hands intently as he repeatedly turned them over, carefully examining the backs and then the palms. There was that same exclusive concentration, as if there was something puzzling and new about them. Something he’d never noticed before or some subtle change that only he could see. Krupmeyer had looked himself, unable to resist the impulse. All he could see was the black dried blood outlining the fingernails. He led him unresisting to the medivac and watched him, still examining his hands, as it flew off.
He remembered how shocked he’d been to see the crew chief of the chopper carefully strip the man of all his weapons before taking him aboard and sitting him in the middle of the other casualties crammed into it. He’d seen men in that state before and wasn’t taking any frigging chances, he told Krupmeyer. That had been Krupmeyer’s first casualty of that kind but not his last. He learned through bitter experience to share the Crew Chief’s extreme caution when dealing with such men. They were unpredictable and extremely dangerous, both to themselves and others. It was only years later that he realised why the Crew Chief had been careful to wedge him in the middle of the other casualties.
I wonder where the hell the poor bastard is now, thought Krupmeyer as he poured a coffee from a flask. His thoughts turned back to the present. We should be running. Get everyone the hell out of here and leave the place to Canfield. Let him run down. In that state, it can’t be too long until he slips away permanently into his own world. He knew Drayton would never go for it. A night retreat with Walters would be too risky.
But staying was riskier, though no one in the place was going to believe it. The numbers were in their favour but that was illusory. Canfield had a single winning advantage over the security men ‑ he was a soldier, whereas they were really just guards. The incident at the gate had proved he still had the stuff. He had manoeuvred them out of a security situation and into a military one, and that was the area he excelled in. We’re on his turf now, playing his game. It’s his jungle and we’re the dumb ass tourists blundering around in it.
He’s got something else going for him as well ‑ he’s crazy, doesn’t give a damn. There’s no way he’s coming out of this alive, whether he gets Walters or not. He’s got nothing to lose, so he can take any risk, do anything it takes, to succeed. As far as Krupmeyer could tell, the only person in the place with military experience, excluding himself, was probably Drayton, and the last time Krupmeyer had carried a rifle was nearly nineteen years ago, he reflected.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of gunshots from the grounds outside. The front legs of the chair he was leaning back in, crashed to the floor as he swung his legs off the table and dashed for the door. He met Drayton in the hall. He was carrying a sub‑machine gun.
‘It’s from the ambush at the road. They think they’ve got him’ he said as they raced from the house.
They sprinted down the drive to where it merged into the road leading down to the gate. The ambush had been placed either side of the road, just where the trees began. In the darkness of the evening, they could just make out the shadowy figures of the men there. One of them was standing up, holding his gun and peering into the trees. Around them, other people were arriving at the same point to reinforce as per Drayton’s plan.
‘What’s the story?’ Drayton asked the one standing, as he took gulps of air. He was out of breath after the sprint from the house.
‘I saw him coming through the trees, right there’ he pointed, still keeping his eyes on the spot. It was a grassy clearing just visible in the forest. ‘I got a burst off. I think I hit him’ he added.
Drayton looked in the direction indicated but could not see anything but a confusion of tree trunks and saplings in the dark. They would have to go in for a look.
‘You circle in from the left’ he told him and turned to tap one of the others on the shoulder. ‘You take the right. Cover me while I take a look. And watch out for booby traps.’
Drayton crept into the woods. He worked his way towards the spot using the available tree cover all the way. He scanned the ground nervously, looking for trip wires but in the end gave up. It was too dark to see anything that fine in the darkness of the woods. Finally he arrived within dashing distance of the spot. There was open ground between the tree he was sheltering behind and it. It was a natural clearing and the grass there was knee-high. Anybody lying prone in it would be well concealed. Canfield could be waiting there for him.
Drayton dipped his hand, palm downwards, to the other two, indicating he was going to crawl through the long grass to the spot. They nodded. He slid to the ground and started crawling slowly and carefully through the flaxy grass. His world immediately closed down to the few inches he could see through the grass stalks in front of him. The tiny noises made by the other two seemed like elephantine blundering. His breathing seemed to come in noisy rasps, despite his best efforts to quieten it. The skin on his elbows was torn by pebbles studded into the earth beneath the grass. He kept crawling, occasionally looking behind to check he was still on the right course. Finally, when he thought he must be near the correct spot, he lifted his head up carefully to look around. There was nothing in sight. He inched forward taking infinite care. His nerves were stretched tight.
Suddenly, five inches in front of his face, he saw the sole of a shoe. His heart thudded with shock as he examined the pattern of minute scuffs on the sole. He lay there for a moment, his pulse racing, until he was calmer. He took a final deep breath and crawling to the left, advanced along the side of the body until he got to the head. It wasn’t Canfield.
The eyes stared lifelessly up at the leafy shroud of the forest. A gag was tied around the mouth, pulling the lips back cruelly to make a wolf like grin. The elbows were tied together behind his back. Drayton didn’t know his name, but was sure he was one of the men on the gate detail. He poked his head out of the grass and looked around carefully. Canfield might be waiting to ambush them while they recovered the body. He was damned if he was going to give him that opportunity but he wasn’t going to abandon the man’s body either.
He turned around and crawled back to the feet of the corpse and grabbing one, started to drag it back to the tree he had set off from. It took time and was hard brutal work. He finally reached it and slithered upright, his back against it. He waited until he had recovered his strength before attempting to lift the body. With a last look around the tree, he quickly hoisted it over his right shoulder and headed out of the forest, bent nearly double by the weight. He staggered between the trees, hoping to God the other two were covering his back. By the time he got back to the waiting group, he was exhausted. He tipped the body forward into their waiting hands and collapsed to the ground, taking great rasping gasps of air. Krupmeyer knelt down beside the body to examine it, his training taking over. Drayton did not have enough breath left to tell him he was wasting his time.
‘It’s Williams’ said the guard who had shot him. He looked from the body to the gun he still held in his hands and then into the blackness of the forest. His face was hard and bitter. Silence descended on them all. Drayton felt responsible but had no time to dwell on it. He had given the shoot on sight order. If anyone was responsible for Williams’ death, he was the one, not the guard. Suddenly they were illuminated by the flash from a huge fiery explosion from the vicinity of the house.