Line of Descent chapter 8
Conways was a gentleman’s club. It had been established over two hundred years ago, in the heyday of the gentleman’s club, when they had sprung into existence all over London like a multitude of spring shoots. Through the years each had evolved, taking on their own personality and flavour. Some were exclusively patronised by the soldiers of empire. Others by writers or members of the judiciary. Each in their own way contributed to the aggregation and establishment of the professional classes needed to run an empire. Most of them had perished, shrivelled and died under the twin pressures of the loss of empire and a society that had changed, that no longer saw the value or relevance of such institutions.
Conways had not. From the beginning, its membership had been drawn exclusively from the upper echelons of the civil service. Its founders had been from that strata of the aristocracy that had felt the need to serve. They were rich and privileged men who had dedicated their lives to their country and its interests. All else was secondary. Conways was where they met, to relax and discuss matters of state, away from the gaze of what they termed the transients, their political masters. Politicians came and went but these men abided.
Sir Horace Vinton had been a member of it for over thirty years. He, like his forebears before, had risen high to the first rank of administrators to command power. He exercised it ruthlessly in the interests of his country. The resemblance between him and the club’s founders was exact. He came from that same section of society, was that same sort of person, the working aristocrat who was rich enough not to need the salary that went with the position. That went straight to a charity for retired soldiers.
His black Daimler saloon pulled up outside the club at one o’clock exactly. He took his lunch there every Monday and Friday. The chauffeur got out and opened the door for him. His security man, who had been riding in the front passenger seat, also got out, quickening his stride to get ahead of him to hold open the door of the club and more importantly, to check the lobby. It was empty except for old Watling, the rotund and respectful servant who had acted as receptionist cum doorman at the club for nearly as long as Vinton had been a member. He stood behind the desk at reception. The chauffeur drove away to park in the usual place. He would return promptly in an hour and a quarter to pick them up.
Sir Horace passed through the doorway and walked up the four marble steps into the lobby. Watling had been sorting the members mail when he had seen Sir Horace’s car pull up. By the time Sir Horace had crossed the lobby, Watling had emerged from behind the desk and was waiting to help him out of his overcoat. Sir Horace let him take it with a distracted thank you. Underneath he wore an immaculately tailored suit.
While Watling carefully stored the coat, Sir Horace straightened the lapels of his jacket and marched away from him with a parting nod. He walked down the picture lined corridor leading off the lobby, heading towards the members’ Dining room. Behind him in the lobby, his bodyguard sat down in one of the chairs that lined one side of it and Watling relaxed. He reached down under the desk and silently produced a newspaper. The bodyguard stood up and walked over to the desk for it. It had been read that morning by a member and had therefore been removed from the library and replaced with a new, freshly ironed one. The bodyguard took it from him with a brief smile of thanks. He had once explained to Watling that he could not carry one about with him when he was on duty. He needed to keep both hands free, he had explained. He resumed his seat and crossing his legs, commenced reading the newspaper. Watling went back to sorting the members mail into the pigeon holes set into the wall behind the desk.
Inside the dining room, Sir Horace sat at his table and scowled at the menu of the day. It had been hand written that morning. Nothing on it particularly appealed to him. Nearly all the tables in the room were occupied. Around him, a gentle buzz of conversation from the distinguished elderly diners carried on unnoticed. The menu was not the source of his bad mood. Closing it with a snap, he handed it to the waiting servant and ordered the roast beef. He thought about the Northern Ireland section. They were bloody hopeless. It was the most vital section of the security apparatus under his control and it was becoming more and more accident prone. He’d have to take action, he thought, put a good man in to shake them up.
His mind cast about for a suitable candidate as he waited for his lunch to arrive. He needed someone who wasn’t going to make a pig’s ear out of it. No more cockups. Someone reliable. He considered several, there was no shortage of them. The real problem lay in plugging the hole that would be left behind when he transferred the right man. Musical bloody chairs with the top ranks of the service.
All because of those clowns, he thought. He blamed himself. I should have taken action sooner, right after that MacColgan fiasco, he thought, grinding his teeth at the memory. It was simple enough. Just kill the man. They had official sanction, it was straight forward. The only complication was that he was on foreign soil. But no, they had to complicate it. Make it look like an accident for the papers. Embarrass the Provisionals in public with how incompetent they were. He remembered the tedious explanation of how the bomb had gone off before it should have. Something about using a primitive detonator to make it look authentic. Bloody authentic, he thought, the stupid bastards had killed some woman and her brats.
His mouth twisted into an ugly line as he bridled at the memory of the roasting he had received from Walters in the aftermath. The bloody cheek. It was Walters’ idea after all. Go for the head, he had said, let’s hit the brains behind the gunmen. He had insisted over Vinton’s objections that they go on the offensive and it had all gone wrong. All that was really bothering Walters was the prospect of any comeback if his part in it ever became public. He had even hinted at destroying the written order for the execution that Vinton had insisted on before undertaking the task. He was glad he had done so, as if Vinton was going to kill someone on a nod and a wink from a mercurial jackass like Walters. Politicians, reflected Vinton bitterly, he had served under many, but none as venial or shallow as that bastard Walters.
Bingham had been in charge of that operation and he had disappeared eight months ago, shortly after it had happened. They had written him off, deciding the Provisionals had killed him in revenge for MacColgan. Served him right, thought Vinton, he’d broken a cardinal rule of operations by being on the scene. His officers were under strict orders to always operate through locally recruited talent, never to participate in operations personally. No bloody Lawrence of Arabias going amongst the natives in mufti. Bingham had ignored that standing order. But now his former superior Thackery had gone missing.
Were the disappearances connected? Was it still retaliation for MacColgan or a change of policy, going for the intelligence officers in the province? If so, they would have to tighten up personal security for all men in the Section. He knew what that meant, a virtual shutdown of all the vital intelligence coming from that area. They could not do without that. There were other sources, but this one was theirs, the only one that they could rely on not to be partisan. There were two terrorist groupings there, he reminded himself, and the locals could not be trusted too far in that direction. His lunch arrived, interrupting his thoughts. He put the problem aside and concentrated on the meal.
Back in the lobby, Watling turned as he heard the whoosh of air caused by the heavy spring-loaded entrance door being pushed open. All his regulars had arrived for lunch and no guests were expected, as far as he knew. It must be a messenger, he thought, turning. The man who came through the door was dressed in a dark blue suit. He walked up the steps and into the lobby. Definitely not a messenger, thought Watling. There was something funny about the way he walked. Briskly yet not in a hurry. His arms, that was it. His arms hung straight down by his sides, not moving as he walked. It gave him a strange quick robotic walk as he crossed the lobby.
As he came abreast of the bodyguard, his right arm swung up away from his body and in the direction of the bodyguard’s face. At the end of it was a gun with a long black silencer attached. He shot the bodyguard at point-blank range, without breaking step. Watling heard the crack of the shot and the hollow thud as the back of the bodyguard’s head hit the wall behind the chair he was seated in. He immediately slumped down in the chair. The newspaper dropped from his lifeless hands onto his lap and slid down his legs to an untidy heap at his feet. The man walked on past Watling, his arm returning to his side. He had not once looked at him. Watling stood rooted to the spot, aghast at what he had just seen.
The man walked down the long corridor leading into the dining room, his pace quickening, his footsteps echoing the length of the corridor. He stopped abruptly at the threshold of the dining room and looked into it at the diners, his face blank and expressionless as his eyes sought out his quarry. Heads turned in his direction and conversations trailed off as people started to notice him standing there. His eyes settled on Sir Horace. He walked into the room, neatly threading his way through the tables with the nimbleness of a dancer towards Sir Horace.
Sir Horace, perhaps alerted by a sixth sense or the growing lull in the conversations about him, looked up, a fork full of food suspended half way to his mouth. Their eyes met and locked, and Sir Horace was lost. There was an inevitability about the man. A sense of overpowering purpose, a hideous paralysing menace that bored down that stare, bored deep down into the primitive animal hinterlands of Sir Horace’s mind and transfixed him in the face of the mortal menace he knew to be bearing down on him. He felt the coldness of the metal as the man pressed the gun against his forehead and pulled the trigger. There was a blinding white flash and an instant of the most exquisite pain.
For a moment the man stood there stock still, arm outstretched in the shocked suspended silence. He turned round and without looking at any of the diners in the room, walked briskly towards the door. They heard his footsteps echo down the corridor as they slowly rose from their seats.
He passed Watling on his way out, still standing behind the desk but frozen in terror with the telephone receiver pressed to his ear. The security camera mounted high on the wall in the lobby later confirmed the man had been in the building for less than thirty seconds.