Line of Descent chapter 3
A mobile incident room had been set-up outside Burham police station. Inside it, Detective Chief Inspector Pritchet sat at a desk watching the newly formed team at work. He was only five years short of retirement but he was commonly acknowledged to have one of the sharpest minds in the Kent constabulary. Around him buzzed the divisional officers brought in to handle the major crime incident that the police station had become. Phones rang and were answered. Officers reported back and were dispatched on fresh investigations. Outside a crowd of reporters were kept at bay by a battery of press officers. Inside the station, Scene of Crime Officers, Soccos, were meticulously examining every print, scratch and blood spot. Since his arrival that morning, Pritchet had laid down the guidelines of the investigation and allocated the main avenues of search to his subordinates. He would henceforth run it through his staff. Major investigations, he had long ago realised, were more a management problem than a leadership one.
The experience of having been in charge of such investigations in the past, told him that this afternoon was a chance to collect his thoughts, an eye in the storm of facts and administration that would soon engulf him. He winced at the appropriateness of the comparison.
He could sense an undercurrent of anger amongst the coppers around him. He felt it himself. Two of our men killed by some bloody psycho. He stifled the upsurge of anger. No, that wasn’t the way. He had risen through the ranks by having a cool head and this bastard wasn’t going to be caught if he allowed his emotions to run away with him. And he was going to catch him, he resolved quietly. Calm down and think. He paused long enough to scratch a note on the pad in front of him to caution the men at the evening progress meeting against getting over‑emotional about this one.
First indicators were not promising. The Socco team had not come up with anything of particular interest. They had however found drag marks from the front desk to the interview room. The marks had come from the heels of Constable Levitt’s shoes. That suggested that Levitt had been at the front desk when he had been killed, and then dragged back to the interview room. The exact cause of his death was still puzzling them. Murdoch, his sergeant, had suggested that the two finger bruises on the neck, one on the side and one on the front, suggested some sort of pressure point technique had been used. Pritchet thought he was probably right. Levitt was a big man who would have put up a good struggle if a straight strangulation had been attempted. There was no sign of such a struggle. He had died or been rendered unconscious very quickly. Whether he was killed then or later in the interview room would be determined at the autopsy. If it did turn out that he’d been killed in such an unusual way, it would be a first for Pritchet. In his experience, violent and murderous people did not usually have the patience and self‑discipline required to learn such exotic techniques. The cause of death where murder is concerned, with the possible exception of poisonings, is nearly always simple and brutally direct.
The cause of Sergeant Dowd’s death was all too obvious. As reconstructed by the forensic team, he had been sitting leaning forward over the interview table when the pencil had been driven with considerable force through his left eye and up into the brain. A right-handed killer. Death had been instantaneous. Pritchet suppressed the wave of nausea that rose at the memory of the sergeant sitting there in the interview room. He hadn’t known him, but by all accounts he’d been a decent copper. Nobody deserved to die like that.
Putting it together, it suggested that the killer had murdered Dowd in the interview room, then left it to kill Levitt at the desk and drag his body back to the interview room. Although the killer could have walked into the station, it seemed unlikely, given the steps he had taken to get away. If all he wanted to do was to kill policemen he would have left some kind of note or something. The psychos could never resist the opportunity to brag, to tell you how smart they were, how stupid you were. And anyway, it looked like he had been in the interview room. Casual callers usually did not get past the front desk. No, it was far more likely that he had been picked up and taken back to the station against his will. Dowd had been scheduled to man the desk that night while Levitt was on mobile patrol. Levitt must have picked him up somewhere and brought him in. Both policemen’s notebooks were missing, as were the Custody records and the tape from the recorder in the interview room.
Why wait until he was in the police station? If he was that lethal, that dangerous, why not kill Levitt when he was being arrested? Maybe there were witnesses present. Then it would make sense to go quietly and bide your time. Good. Somewhere on this patch the killer had been arrested and there was a reasonable chance that there might be witnesses to it. Pritchet’s spirits rose.
It still did not answer the question of why he actually killed them. Dowd was a few years short of retirement. He could have been overcome, he did not need to be killed. The same applied to Levitt. He could just as easily have been knocked on the head. Why not just escape? It wasn’t really necessary to kill them. Was it just because they’d seen his face? A face they might have known or been able to identify later? A high-profile thug? One for whom another two murders would make no difference.
Pritchet made a note to assign someone to the task of compiling a list of violent men currently on the outside. That was going to be a long list. If they really had collared a major hard man, Pritchet felt Dowd would have been on to Division straight away. He wouldn’t have tried to sit on him all night, and grandstand in the morning. He was too old a hand for that sort of thing. No. Whoever they had, they’d felt confident of handling him themselves. And they’d been wrong, tragically fatally wrong.
The killer had taken the trouble to clean out all evidence of his arrest, booking and interview. That showed a cool head. As far as they could determine, there had not been a major crime incident last night. If they had picked him up for something minor, why deliberately commit two murders to escape? Two lives gone and probably a young policeman’s career he reflected, remembering the Doctor’s preliminary report on young Richards.
The station police car was missing. It looked like the killer had got away from the area in it. There was a good chance of it being spotted. They were a good distance from any motor ways. That meant he had to travel along the small country roads. There would certainly be a few sightings of it turned up by his men. Legwork, thousands of police hours. But a police car is noticed, especially when the man driving it is not in uniform. We might at least get a direction or even a description, if we’re lucky, he thought.
The radio phone in front of him came to life, interrupting his thoughts. It was Sergeant Wilson calling from Dowd’s house. They had still not located Dowd’s wife. For her, the nightmare of every policeman’s wife was about to come true. As he considered which direction to send Wilson in, a thought occurred to him.
‘Hang on’ he said to Wilson as he turned around and beckoned Murdock over to him.
‘Were there any keys on Dowd’s body?’ he asked. Murdock hurried back to his desk to consult Dowd’s effects sheet.
‘No, he didn’t have any keys on him’ he answered. Pritchet turn back to the phone.
‘Wilson, is there a garage attached to the house?’ Wilson answered yes.
‘Look in it, see if you can see a police car.’ Pritchet waited. Static hissed in his ear. ‘O God, let me be wrong’ he thought. Wilson reported back quickly, out of breath. There was indeed a police car in the garage.
‘Stay where you are, do not, I repeat, do not, under any circumstances approach the house again. I’m sending you assistance right now. Stay in the car and watch the house until we get there.’ He slammed down the phone.
‘Get my driver and despatch any cars in the area to Dowd’s house. Lights and sirens. Move’ he snarled at Murdock.
Pritchet stood in the living room of Dowd’s house watching the young policewoman offering Mrs. Dowd another cup of coffee. The old woman sat in an armchair, dressed in a threadbare dressing gown, confused and in tears. Her distress was compounded by the quantity of alcohol it was obvious she had consumed last night. She had the red eyes and pallid washed out complexion of the suburban alcoholic. Her hand trembled as she reached for the proffered cup and saucer. It shook so much that coffee slopped out of the cup and into the saucer.
‘It’s all my fault’ she said inexplicably. The policewoman sitting on the arm of the chair put her arm around her shoulders and made soothing noises.
Pritchet knew with certainty that she would remember nothing about last night. The mix of Gin and sleeping tablets had knocked her out so thoroughly, that even when they had broken down the front door, she had not awakened. Maybe that state of oblivion had saved her life. Or maybe the killer had not even gone into the house, just put the police car in the garage and drove off in Dowd’s own car.
Mrs. Dowd began to cry. Great racking sobs escaped her. The coffee was abandoned. It was not an uncommon complaint for a policeman’s wife. The unsocial hours, the slight distance maintained by neighbours, the worry and lurking fear. It all mounted up and sometimes the bottle provided the solitary comfort through the long hours spent alone waiting.
Pritchet had immediately circulated the description of Dowd’s own car, but did not hold out any great hope of catching the killer in it. By now it would be abandoned somewhere. It had been a smart move. The switch had gained him enough time to escape from the area in an unmarked car not being sought by the police.
Pritchet blamed himself for not having thought of it sooner. Whoever the killer was, he had a cool head. He had taken the time in the police station to think about escaping from the area in something other than the available police car. It showed a resourcefulness and cheek not usually encountered in violent men. He was definitely not acting like some frothing psycho. Too bloody cool by half, thought Pritchet grudgingly.
He looked around the room. It was modestly decorated. Above the fireplace hung an old black and white group shot of Dowd’s graduation class. He examined it closely trying to pick out the young Dowd. It was just a sea of young unformed faces, spruced up and staring at the camera. He could not find him. It was hard to reconcile the young men pictured with the corpse of the old man he had seen this morning. Probably none of them had ended up like Dowd. Killing a policeman was still a rarity in this country. His thoughts were interrupted by Murdock entering the room.
‘We think we might have found out where he was arrested’ he announced.
‘Did we get a description?’ asked Pritchet immediately as he ushered Murdock out of the room and back into the hallway. There was no need to disturb Mrs. Dowd further.
‘Better than that’ replied Murdock. ‘It looks like we might get a bus load of them. The driver of the Paignton to Burham bus reports seeing Levitt putting a man into the police car at a bus stop about six miles outside town at half eleven last night. He’d stopped to drop a passenger and remembers him quite well.’
‘Does he remember how many passengers were on the bus at the time?’ asked Pritchet.
‘He thinks about five, but can’t remember exactly’ replied Murdock. ‘We’re tracing them now. It shouldn’t be too difficult, they were all locals as far as he remembers.’
‘What’s the description like?’ asked Pritchet.
‘Not very good, I’m afraid’ replied Murdock, looking at his notebook. ‘The man was in his late thirties or early forties, white, medium build, dressed in bluish trousers and a dark or black zip up jacket. Dark hair and clean-shaven. He can’t remember the face in detail.’
‘How far was he from them?’ asked Pritchet.
‘About thirty or forty feet. They were on the pavement near the bus stop, only visible to the side of the bus’ headlights. He thinks the passenger who got off may have a better description because she walked right past them.’
‘Was the bus coming into or heading away from Burham?’ asked Pritchet.
‘Heading away, Sir’ replied Murdock.
Pritchet stood in thought for a moment. Murdock waited, resisting the urge to fidget. He had worked for Pritchet long enough to know not to disturb him at these moments. They were invariably followed by a stream of orders. He took out his pen and prepared to take them down.
‘First and most important of all, find the passenger who got off the bus and all of the other passengers’ ordered Pritchet.
‘If our man was picked up at a bus stop, he may have originally come into the area on one. Assign a team to interview all bus drivers in the area as well as anyone who was a passenger on one in the last twenty-four hours. Set up a vehicle checkpoint at the bus stop. Stop and interview all drivers. If he came into the area in a car it might have broken down. I want every parked car in this area checked out. Finally I want all reports of hitch hikers and people on foot checked out as well. Anyone, anywhere near that description is to be positively accounted for.’
Murdoch and several teams travelled on every bus that evening, interviewing and taking statements from everyone who boarded. By next morning, they had cross checked all the statements and were confident that all the passengers on the bus had been accounted for. They were going to repeat the exercise today.
Pritchet sat in the Interview Room at Burham. The Socco team had finished with it and nothing remained to mark their presence but the odd smudge of fingerprint powder. The preliminary forensic report on Levitt had confirmed the guess as to the cause of death. It had been a pressure point technique. The doctor estimated he had been unconscious within three seconds of its application, death would have followed within ten. Whoever killed him knew his way about the human body. It came as no surprise to Pritchet. He had already decided they were dealing with someone out of the ordinary.
On the desk in front of him, were all the statements taken from the bus passengers. He had read through them all, hopeful that a better description would emerge but he was disappointed. He looked about the interview room. A lot of them had not even noticed Levitt and the man. Sunk in their own thoughts, he supposed. He turned the statements over listlessly and determined to have a go himself. Calling for Murdock, he asked him to send in Miss Rawlings, the girl who had got off the bus. She had actually walked by them. Of all of them, she was the one to squeeze dry.
Murdock escorted her into the room. Pritchet rose, and after introducing himself, sat her down and sent Murdock for coffees. She was young and pretty and responded to his old world courtesy. Her clothes were smart but not too stylish. She sat primly, waiting for him to begin. She had given a statement already but her description had not been any better than the bus driver’s.
He ran through it with her. He was polite and patient, encouraging her to remember every second of the encounter. She could not add anything to it. Pritchet exhaled and leaned back in the seat. Unconsciously his hand reached towards his jacket pocket to fish out a pack of cigarettes. He had given up smoking two months ago but had still not lost all the habits. He smiled ruefully as he caught himself. I could do with one now, he thought.
He took her through it again. Like most policeman he had long realised the people never tell all of a story. They filter it, unconsciously stripping bits off to tell the essential story. What gets lost are the things they are not interested in or the things they think will not interest the listener. If they repeat it, it is never exactly the same story. New details are added and old ones discarded. Get them to repeat it enough times, in different ways, and you’ll get all the detail. He told her not to worry, she was doing fine and tried a new approach.
‘I want you to imagine you’re there sitting in your seat on the bus. Your stop is coming up and you’re getting ready to get off the bus. Tell me exactly what you can see.’
Her head dropped for a moment as she tried to visualise the scene. She had repeated the story so many times that she was tired of it. Fatigue was setting in.
‘I was standing up long before we got to the stop. I was late you see, in a hurry. It was dark. The party had run on longer than I thought and I was late going home. When the bus stopped, I was standing at the front beside the door waiting for him to open it. The driver, I mean’ she added.
‘That’s when you first saw them’ supplied Pritchet. ‘Try to see them now. You’re standing at the front of the bus looking out at them through the windscreen. Try to picture it.’
She described the scene again, her eyes unfocusing as she dragged up the memory. The description remained the same. Pritchet was careful not to push her too hard. If you did that, a witness, particularly a helpful one, was prone to start inventing detail.
‘OK, you’re off the bus. You’re walking towards them. They’re standing on the pavement to your right. You’re approaching them to pass on the left. Describe what you’re seeing.’
‘The policeman has his hand on his shoulder. The back door of the car is open. He’s putting him into it.’
‘What are they saying, can you recall?’ prompted Pritchet.
‘I wasn’t listening. It was late. I just wanted to get home. I just walked past them’ she finished, her head dropping. She ran a hand through her hair, her fingers spread wide. The tendons on the back of her hand stood out in white. The strain was beginning to tell.
‘OK, you weren’t listening to what they were saying. Can you recall the tone. Were they angry, calm, fighting?’ he asked leaning down to look at her downcast face.
‘The tone?’ she asked, raising her head to look at him quizzically.
‘Yes, the sound. How they actually sounded.’
Her brows furrowed. ‘They sounded normal. The policeman spoke and the man said something back. They both spoke. They weren’t angry or anything. They just spoke normally…’ her voice trailed off. Her eyes widened slowly and her mouth opened in an O of surprise.
‘He was American. I’m sure of it. The man he was putting in the police car was an American!’ she exclaimed. ‘He had an American accent.’
She looked at Pritchet in triumph, all trace of fatigue gone from her face as she beamed at him.
‘I’m good at accents, he was definitely American. Definitely. He had that sort of nasal twang, you know what I mean.’
He went through it again with her. He was satisfied she had nothing more. He thanked her and offered to get a car to run her home. She accepted. He called Murdock in and asked him to arrange it.
When they left, Pritchet sat thinking about what he had just heard. His thoughts were interrupted by Murdock re‑entering the room.
‘Do you know where she lives?’ he asked.
Pritchet stared at him blankly. ‘No’ he replied.
‘Cosgrave Hall. She’s a domestic at Cosgrave Hall’ Murdock announced. Seeing the puzzlement and annoyance growing in Pritchet’s face he quickly supplied, ‘It’s the country home of Sir Gerald Walters, the Home Secretary.’
‘What’ exploded Pritchet. ‘We’ve had a double murderer on the doorstep of the Home Secretary and we’ve only just twigged it.’ Murdock swayed backwards under the force of Pritchet’s rage.
‘Don’t just stand there like a bloody idiot, get the Chief Constable on the phone immediately.’