Line of Descent chapter 9
The meeting had been set up for the next morning by Pritchet’s superior, Chief Constable Wakeham. He was as eager as Pritchet to pass on as quickly as possible any hint of a threat to a member of the Cabinet. It was attended by Pritchet, Wakeham and a man from London called Drayton, Phillip Drayton. Wakeham had introduced him with no more explanation than that he was someone from security. Pritchet suspected that was probably as much about him as the Chief Constable himself knew. He looked at him. He was young and hard and spoke with a trace of a regional accent. The west country, guessed Pritchet. He appeared tired this morning, as if the meeting had started too early for him and he seemed impatient to get it over with, as if there were more pressing matters. Not rude mind you, just anxious to wrap it up and get back to whatever they had taken him away from. Pritchet did not mind. Let him take care of the possible threat to the Home Secretary and he could get back to hunting down the Burham killer. He had enough on his plate.
Pritchet was right, Drayton’s thoughts were elsewhere. He had just come from the emergency meeting caused by the murder of Sir Horace Vinton. Coming hard on the heels of Thackery’s disappearance, it had thrown the whole organisation into a state of siege, as if they were under attack. The meeting had lasted until the early hours of that morning and he had only had three hours sleep before catching the train. They had watched the film taken by the security camera in the lobby until they were sick of it. It was amazing how little information it had yielded, he thought. The man looked so plain and ordinary and anonymous. An army of clerks were sorting through a mountain of photographs at this very moment, desperately trying to find a match for that pale blank face in Central Registry.
The Provisionals were everyone’s favourite candidate. There weren’t really any others, he thought. They had waited all the afternoon and evening for the confirmation ‑ a call to a newspaper claiming the credit. But it had not come.
Why hadn’t he worn dark glasses or a hat, made some attempt to obscure his face? He must have known about the camera, it was obvious he had staked out Sir Horace, followed him about and got to know his routine. Knew it well enough to pick out the only regular time when his protection was minimal. He hadn’t looked about for the dining room. He’d walked straight to it. By all accounts, the only time he’d hesitated was when he’d been looking for Vinton’s table.
The witnesses were just as useless as the camera. All they could remember was the face. Every one of them had stared at his face but could not remember any significant identifying detail. It was as if the man was a machine, a mark IV assassin, specially built to have no personality, no distinguishing marks, no funny mannerisms. It was the shock he realised. They were, after all, a roomful of elderly administrators who couldn’t really take in what was happening. It was such a clean hit. They had all been sworn to secrecy, ‘D’ Notices had been slapped on all the newspapers, gagging them but it was going to come out, it was simply a matter of time.
Just before he had been sent to check out this thing about Walters, Prochnikov of the Russian embassy had phoned. He had assured them that any help they might need from him was available. How times had changed.
‘That’ remarked one of his colleagues at the meeting, ‘said a lot about how tightly the lid had been kept on.’ One of the group had been immediately assigned to review the clearance of every diner at the scene. One of them might possibly have been Prochnikov’s source, you never knew.
Pritchet gave a description of how they thought the murders had occurred, running through the sequence of events at the police station. Drayton asked a few questions and then dwelled for a while on the exact technique used to kill Levitt. He seemed interested for the first time, asking how sure the forensic doctors were, that was the cause of death. Pritchet told him the full forensic report had confirmed the cause of death. It was definite, there wasn’t another mark on the body, he said. Drayton considered it a moment before letting Pritchet resume his story. His manner had changed, he was really listening now.
The killer sounded like a trained man, a professional. And there was that link to Sir Gerald Waters, Vinton’s boss, for lack of a better word. Suddenly this inconvenient summons to a provincial police headquarters was taking on a more important aspect. Had another assassination been foiled?
Pritchet went through the switch of the police car and Dowd’s personal car. Drayton asked if they thought the killer had entered Dowd’s house. Pritchet said they thought not but the house had not been very secure, he could have got in for a look if he knew something about locks or was prepared to risk breaking a window but there was no sign of any entry. There wasn’t really any reason for him to go in there he added.
‘But he left a potential witness alive,’ countered Drayton, ‘isn’t that curious after being so tidy at the station?’
Pritchet bristled at the word tidy used to describe the murder of two policemen. He controlled his irritation and described the state Mrs. Dowd had been in on the night. ‘She was totally out of it’ he finished.
‘There’s still a chance she might have seen something’ mused Drayton. ‘He appears to have went out of his way to kill Dowd and Levitt, and yet he left her alive.’ He lapsed into thought. It was a curious loose end. Like Sir Horace’s chauffeur but the opposite side of the coin.
They had found him sitting in the Daimler, stone dead. One bullet through the head and nothing removed from the car except his automatic and the machine pistol that he kept clipped underneath the dashboard. The spare magazines had been taken as well. He need not have been killed. He was too far away to have heard any commotion from the club and would not have returned to it for at least another forty-five minutes. Yet the assassin had gone to the trouble of killing him, apparently just for the weapons. That was the most bizarre and puzzling aspect of the hit. It was as if he was tooling up for more, a person at the meeting had suggested ominously. Drayton had been forced to agree. Realistically, there was no other explanation unless he just wanted to add insult to injury.
Pritchet waited a moment before continuing, not missing the effect his story was having on Drayton. He outlined how the witnesses had been found and the descriptions that had been obtained from them. Drayton went through each one in detail with Pritchet. There was a correspondence, it could be the same man. He asked Pritchet which witness he thought was the most reliable. Pritchet thought it over before replying.
‘For my money, the bus driver. He had a good view as they approached the stop, sat there looking while the girl got off and saw them pretty close up as he passed them, pulling back onto the road. She was in a hurry. It was dark and she was frightened, didn’t want to get involved.’
The driver’s description had been the most detailed and matched Vinton’s killer the most closely, thought Drayton. He would have to get copies of the stills from the lobby camera to Pritchet. He thought about the girl and her impression that the man had been an American. It reminded him of an idea that had been floated at last night’s meeting.
‘An American accent? Is she sure? Couldn’t possibly be Irish?’ asked Drayton.
‘No, she’s sure. She didn’t hear what he said but she’s definite he spoke with an American accent.’
Drayton thought it over. He had spent enough time working in Ireland to know that there was no such thing as a single Irish accent. There were quite distinct regional variations. From the loud raucous accent of Belfast to the almost inaudible whisper of Kerry. He also knew how easily some of the accents from the eastern central area could be mistaken for American or Canadian on first hearing.
On the other hand, she might well be right. Which brought him back to the idea raised at last night’s meeting. That the assassin had not been a Provo, rather a professional killer hired by them. The idea was not as ludicrous as it first appeared when examined carefully. They had the money, and the rationale for such a move was fairly good. We knew all their killers in Ireland by sight and kept close tags on them. That left any possible assassination attempts to the untrained amateurs on the mainland and their track record in the area of political assassination had been abysmal. True, there had been some notable exceptions but by and large the threat had been contained with no more than the usual security precautions.
But a new face, someone not on their files, someone with the experience to pull off such hits would be extremely effective. And very difficult to find. He looked up from his thoughts to find Pritchet’s eyes upon him. There was an expectant, knowing look in them.
‘Why don’t you tell us about him?’ he asked simply.
Drayton smiled briefly, reassessing the policeman across the table. There was no need to tell them much until a solid link had been established, he decided.
‘There may be a connection here with an incident that happened yesterday in London. If I can use a phone, I can arrange to have some photographs sent from London for your witnesses to have a look at.’
‘What sort of incident? asked Wakeham sharply.
‘I’m afraid I can’t say much about that.’ replied Drayton. ‘It’s classified, I’m sorry.’ He held his hands up to stifle the rising protests of Pritchet and Wakeham.
‘I assure you, that in this instance secrecy is merited. If your witnesses recognise the man, I can tell you more. But nothing until then’ he finished.
Wakeham had a try at pressurising him to tell them more but Drayton reported to higher powers than Wakeham and despite his relative youth was far too tough a customer to be intimidated. Pritchet sat quietly throughout, watching them argue. Drayton handled it well, thought Pritchet. Just the right amount of deference but an absolute insistence that his hands were tied. He knew in his bones that the witnesses would make an identification. From the start he had felt they were dealing with someone out of the usual and it came as no surprise to find a security dimension emerging. He hated the idea. It meant they would only ever be working with a part of the picture, never allowed to know the full story.
The argument wound down in Drayton’s favour, as Pritchet knew it would. Wakeham had Drayton shown to his own office to make the call while they waited in the conference room.
‘Bloody security’ he muttered with ill temper, when Drayton had left the room. ‘If the Home Secretary ends up in a coffin, they’ll have a hell of a job classifying that.’ Pritchet nodded agreement, quietly amused at his superior’s irritation. Like a lot of powerful men used to commanding obedience, his reaction to not getting his own way was predictably petulant.
Drayton sat in Wakeham’s office and made the call. He reported back the substance of the meeting and recommended that the Minister’s security be strengthened immediately. Copies of the stills would be faxed right away, with follow-up photographs to be delivered by despatch rider that afternoon. He agreed to stay there until the witnesses saw them. They told him that the Provisionals had at last claimed the hit. The foreign press had the story and they had been forced to let the wraps off the papers. It would be in the evening editions.
He went back to the conference room and told them as much of the story as he thought they needed. A messenger from communications entered, carrying the freshly faxed photographs of Sir Horace’s killer. Pritchet called in his sergeant and arranged for them to be shown to all the witnesses immediately. The meeting broke up, with an agreement to reconvene it when all the witnesses had seen the photographs. Pritchet took Drayton to the canteen, where they discussed the Burham incident while they waited.
By lunch time a positive identification had been made. The driver was the most emphatic. It was definitely the same man. Drayton arranged some details of liaison between Pritchet and the officers investigating the Vinton murder and left for London.