Line of Descent Chapter 27
Drayton waited with Krupmeyer amid the ruins of the summer house. He sat on the floor, resting his injured back against the wall. It throbbed with a steady nagging ache that the drugs could not quite mask. Beside him on the floor, Krupmeyer lay in a stretcher. About them, the team of paramedics and doctors swarmed over the survivors, patching them up before moving them out to the waiting ambulances. There were far worse cases than Krupmeyer who lay waiting his turn in the mellow drug induced haze brought on by the painkillers they had shot him up with.
They talked in a fragmented fashion while they waited. Krupmeyer fought to keep his attention on the conversation as the drugs floated him off on dreamy tangents. Drayton was tired himself, a deep empty exhaustion that left him feeling curiously detached from the scene. His chest hurt where the doctor had treated the long ugly slashes made by Canfield’s knife. The bandages wrapped around it constricted his breathing and hurt his bruised back. He shifted his position slightly, trying to get more support for the back. He’d lost some blood but he was going to be fine, they had assured him. He felt far from fine. The events of the night weighed heavily on him.
Across the room, the body of Canfield still lay on the floor. Underneath the dried blood, his face looked thin and lined, the mouth slightly open. For the first time, Drayton noticed the white and grey stubble on his chin. It somehow made him look his age. How much smaller and shrivelled he was in death. Where was the superhuman killing machine of a few hours ago? He lay flat on his back, his arms thrown out from the body with the hands palm upwards and the fingers curved slightly inwards. Crucifixus etiam, thought Drayton, the phrase rising unbidden to his mind at the image. And truly he was crucified.
A victim of his times and his circumstances, thought Drayton, and ultimately of himself. What a life he’d had. The special forces trooper, the soldier in excelsis, the undefeated prisoner of war, the quiet American living abroad, the husband and loving father and now the dead assassin on the floor of a summer house in Kent. His death, like his life, had been extraordinary. Maybe that was it, he thought, groping for an understanding of the forces which propelled a man like that through life.
Maybe fate would not allow such an individual to live and die quietly like an ordinary person. Perhaps that was what had finally driven him into the margins of insanity. The realisation that for him there could never be an ordinary life. He could twist and turn but for him it would always be larger than life, somehow gigantic and extraordinary, never normal or peaceful. Violence and death went with him down the days of his life, sitting like twin vultures of destruction on his shoulders, visiting both enemy and loved one with cruel indifference.
A magnet of violence and misfortune to those he loved, he no longer cared for life and in letting go of it, became even more huge and terrifying. And yet, as he worked his way up the chain of command, he fell as well. Bingham, Thackery, Vinton ‑ they were the markers of his fall, his line of descent into madness and inhumanity. The urge to end his life in one last heroic but doomed confrontation must have been irresistible.
If he had succeeded in killing Walters, he wouldn’t have gone on, Drayton knew that with certainty. It was the only thing keeping Canfield going. They’d survived by killing him instead but in some ways, it was an act of mercy and it was Drayton who’d done the actual killing. He’d never killed anyone before.
He stared at the body for a time. There were some very mixed feelings about Canfield he knew he’d have to come to terms with in the days to come.
He turned back to Krupmeyer, understanding now why the survivors of wars and disasters formed associations. What they had gone through together forged bonds between them that no one who hadn’t been there could ever possibly share. He looked him over with affection. There was a rude resilience about the man that he had come to admire greatly. Drayton’s bullet that had hit him in the side, had passed straight through but the other one from Canfield was still embedded inside him somewhere, but he was going to make it.
‘What’re you going to do now?’ Drayton asked him. Krupmeyer smiled weakly before replying.
‘I’m going back to Ireland. There’s a situation there I’m mindful to pursue’ he said weakly, in his old mimic of a hillbilly accent, but his heart wasn’t in it. He thought about people like Noushazaran and Winnie; he’d have to go back and talk to them and tell them the truth, they were owed that if only to give them some closure so they could move on. Winnie would be upset but she’d add Canfield and his family to her prayers and she’d pray very hard for them. Krupmeyer found that thought comforting.
He thought about Helen too and wondered how it would work out. He would make it work out, he decided. This was his last case. Gus the gumshoe was retiring. From now on, he was going to settle down and really build something with his life. It didn’t matter what. No more crusades for lost and hopeless causes. There or in the States, it did not matter to him. His prospects were the same in either country, he realised with a shrug and did not give a damn. A fresh start, is a fresh start wherever you are. He began to look forward to it.
‘What about you?’ he asked Drayton in turn.
What about me indeed, thought Drayton, lapsing into thought. The last week had shifted his viewpoint considerably. He felt like a used man. Used by people and situations that he had no regard or respect for ‑ and that was important to him. You are what you work for, he realised and the thought of continuing to serve people like Walters was no longer tolerable for the sake of some larger good. Walters, he knew, was exceptional, but it made no difference. You could just as easily get involved in the same type of situation at the behest of more honourable men and for the best of reasons. He shared that dilemma with Canfield, he realised. Good and dutiful men at the mercy of the larger picture. Sacrificed on the altar of national interest and political expediency. Well, no more, he thought. With the decision made, his spirits rose slightly.
‘I’m considering a change of career’ he replied. Krupmeyer mulled over the reply, reading Drayton’s pensive mood for depression or guilt over the lives lost under his command.
‘This thing wasn’t going to end nicely, whatever you did’ he said gently.
Drayton looked away.
Krupmeyer’s turn came and he was lifted up and carried out to an ambulance. The two attendants struggled under the weight of the big man as they carried the stretcher out. Drayton got to his feet painfully and followed them out.
‘Don’t drop me, boys’ said Krupmeyer, treating them to the brainless goofy grin Drayton had come to know so well. They smiled back, humouring him as they manoeuvred the stretcher awkwardly into the ambulance. Drayton stood at the open doors, watching as the attendants fussed about, securing the stretcher. One of them stayed in the back with Krupmeyer while the driver jumped out to close the doors. Just before he did, Drayton held up a hand in silent farewell. Krupmeyer lifted his head off the stretcher with an effort and looked out at Drayton. His hand slowly lifted off the blanket that covered him and he held it palm outwards and fingers spread to Drayton. The driver closed the doors, walked around to the front and getting in, started the engine.
‘Hey Drayton, you did good’ shouted Krupmeyer from behind the closed doors before the ambulance moved off to drive bumpily across the meadow. Drayton stood watching it until it entered the forest. He knew he had done good, as Krupmeyer put it, but it was a relative thing. There were only six of them left alive after the night. Only six. And one of them was the prime cause of it all. There was a cruel injustice about that.
He became aware of the presence of someone standing beside him. It was Pritchet, the policeman investigating the Burham murders. How long ago their last meeting seemed, he thought tiredly. One career and oh so many lives ago.
‘The Home Secretary would like to see you, Sir’ said Pritchet respectfully. He looked at Drayton, appalled at the change in him. Drayton just nodded but did not move.
‘This way, Sir’ prompted Pritchet, indicating to the path running back to the house, in an effort to get him moving. They walked across the meadow towards it. Drayton limped heavily. Pritchet adjusted his pace. He had been told the case was closed but that wasn’t enough for him. He had to know more but he knew he wouldn’t get it officially. Already, a shroud of secrecy was being drawn over the events of last night. All he knew was that the Burham killer had attacked the house, forcing them out of it, to a final confrontation at the summer house. He looked across at Drayton, wondering if he could get anything more out of him.
‘What made him do it all?’ he asked. He hated himself for this shameless cadging but he could not stop himself. He needed to know the why. Once you knew the why, everything else followed.
‘It’s over, Pritchet. Leave it alone’ mumbled Drayton.
They came to the start of the forest path back to the main house. Beside it lay a body. The feet stuck out from under the heavy blanket that had been draped over it by someone. Drayton stopped to crouch down painfully on one knee and lift the blanket from the face, his thoughts far away.
‘Did you know him, Sir?’ asked Pritchet. Drayton thought the question over. No, he didn’t know him, not even his name, he reminded himself, but in a different sense, he knew him well. For an instant last night, he’d seen into the depths of him and in that moment, found nothing but the best of humanity. He covered the face up, almost lovingly thought Pritchet, before straightening up.
They entered the forest in silence. In daylight the path was innocent and peaceful. Drayton remembered what it had been like a few scant hours before and hated it for its duplicity. As they walked back, his mind replayed images of the night, sorting through them randomly. Memories and phrases came and went, sometimes repeating themselves over and over. It was reaction, he knew, but he let it happen.
They emerged from the forest and walked around the house to the front. Drayton noticed the exterior floodlights were still on. Without Harting, they probably did not know where the off switch was, he reflected with a hint of hysteria. Poor old Harting. What a mess Canfield had made of his beloved system. What a mess he made out of all of us, he reflected. Walters waited for them at the bottom of the steps. His head was swathed in bandages. Of all of them, he was the least injured, thought Drayton, reflecting on the perversity of fate.
As they approached, Grantley, Walters’ private secretary, drove up in a large black saloon car. He got out and walked around it to open the door for Walters, who climbed into the back. Grantley remained standing there, holding the door open and watching Drayton and Pritchet approach. His eyes fixed on the limping Drayton, knowing Walters had marked him for destruction. What a thing it was, he thought with pride, to work for a man of real power. A man who wielded it savagely like some medieval warlord, bestowing little portions of it to those who pleased him and oblivion to those who didn’t. Drayton had crossed his master and Grantley looked forward to seeing him suffer his fate.
‘Give us a moment, would you Pritchet?’ asked Walters with a bright smile when they arrived at the car. The only people he had to keep sweet besides the Cabinet were the powerful police lobby and he was always careful in his dealings with their senior officers. He’s not without a certain charm when he wants to be, thought Drayton.
‘Of course, Sir’ said Pritchet obligingly, retiring to stand out of earshot. Bloody security, he thought.
Walters spoke to Grantley. ‘I’ve left my papers in the control room. Would you be kind enough to fetch them for me?’ he asked. Drayton glanced at Grantley’s rat like face, wondering if he had always looked like that or had acquired it in Walters’ service. You were what you worked for he reminded himself. Grantley hurried off, attentive as always to his master’s wishes.
Having cleared the scene, Walters turned his attention to Drayton. His face was composed but Drayton could see the spite and relish in the eyes. Payback time had arrived, he thought. After all they’d gone through, the man had learned nothing. There was no remorse nor, he knew, would there be anything more than a token gratitude for the sacrifices of last night. Walters would continue on, ploughing a path across other people’s lives, blind and indifferent to the pain and misery left behind. What had been the ultimate personal disaster for so many others was already becoming a knotty presentation problem for him, an exercise in damage limitation.
‘Drayton, I’m not at all happy at your handling of last night. Questions are going to be asked, I’m bound to tell you’ he began in a querulous voice.
Drayton, standing by the car, supplied his own translation of the ministerial double speak. He was going to get the blame, Walters would see to that and was telling him so. Walters waited for a reaction but there was none. Drayton just looked back at him.
‘Frankly, your handling of this whole situation has been nothing short of scandalous’ continued Walters, becoming more explicit in his criticism.
Drayton could see he wanted a reaction, needed one. There was no satisfaction for him in besting an opponent who wouldn’t rise to his own defence. Drayton smiled at his transparency. His back ached from standing up and he put his hand on the edge of the car’s roof to lean against it. The smile and Drayton’s seeming nonchalance irritated Walters further.
‘I see you find in amusing. Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?’
Drayton looked down at him, thinking that they would have saved so much grief if they’d simply pushed him out the front door last night. It would have been such a beautifully simple solution, he thought, wondering why it hadn’t occurred to him at the time. I was different then, he realised, for the first time acknowledging the profound change in himself. Automatic respect and a feeling of duty towards totems of authority like Walters were things of the past. He felt free and uninvolved.
‘Tell me, how’re you going to explain away your involvement in MacColgan’s murder?’ asked Drayton, knowing it was the one area that Walters would feel vulnerable on. A possible lapse of judgement in the eyes of his superiors, perhaps a terminal one. They would be as quick as he to divest themselves of a perceived liability.
Walters looked up at him from his seat in the back of the car. His eyes glittered as he appraised Drayton anew. The obnoxious security drone had accurately guessed at his main preoccupation concerning the whole episode but he would survive, of that he was confident. Let him have his small victory, he thought, his fate was sealed anyway.
Grantley returned at the trot with the despatch box containing the papers Walters had been working on in the control room. He elbowed Drayton aside to put it into Walters’ outstretched hands. Walters placed it across his knees and told Grantley to get them back to London. Drayton looked at its battered and scratched surface for a time before he stepped back from the car, allowing the waiting Grantley to close the door and get into the driver’s seat. He watched Walters taking a fountain pen out of his breast pocket to commence work on the papers. Drayton remembered Walters’ phenomenal reputation as a paper shifter. By end of day, every document in it would be read, considered and if appropriate, have a decision made on it. The Walters’ legend would roll on, especially after last night’s events. Grantley started the car up and pulled away down the drive.
As it drove off, Pritchet walked back over to where Drayton stood, watching the car winding its way down the drive and into the forest. Drayton watched it intently, long after it had disappeared into the trees. Pritchet’s gaze followed his, idly wondering what was keeping his interest.
There was a massive explosion from out of the carpet of forestry in front of them. It came from where Walters’ car would have been. An orange and black ball of flame billowed into the air and the hollow boom rolled back to them, rattling the windows of the house behind them. Pritchet had flinched but Drayton hadn’t moved a muscle, he noticed. He still stood there, immobile and immersed in his own thoughts, watching the fireball burn itself out. It was slowly replaced by a black oily column of smoke that gradually rose out of the trees into the air. It was the despatch box, realised Pritchet. There’d been a bomb in it. Sometime last night, when they had abandoned the house, Canfield had booby-trapped it, knowing that it was the Minister’s exclusive property.
He put his hand on Drayton’s shoulder to get his attention. Drayton turned to look at him. His faced was blank, showing no emotion, not even surprise at the explosion. He listened without saying anything as Pritchet hurriedly explained his suspicion. Before he’d finished, Pritchet’s voice faltered and stopped as he began to realise what he’d actually just witnessed.
He looked deep into Drayton’s eyes, searching for something, a twinge of guilt perhaps, but there was nothing. Drayton returned his stare, calm and unconcerned. It wasn’t murder but it wasn’t far off it either, thought Pritchet, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. There wasn’t a shred of proof. There wasn’t even an appropriate charge. Conspiracy to commit murder by not being clever enough.
They regarded each other for a while. Eventually, Drayton gave a small smile and turned away without a word, to walk slowly off across the grounds. Pritchet remained standing at the foot of the steps, watching the limping figure recede until it entered the treeline.