The Unseen Path – Part Seven

1642again, Going Postal

Later that morning on their way to the midday meeting Dager related his calls to both local chief constables, given that the car had been found close to the force boundaries.  “They both understood the import of this… development… and promised to do all they could.  I also took a call from my boss reiterating the need for you to be here.  Apparently, someone in MI5 requested it.  Care to explain?”
“News to me Sir.”
The mysterious ‘Henry’, what was the man up to?  It had to be him.  Who else could it be?  Would he be here?  Bowson looked about him.  The meeting room in the Home Office was of the highest security status and most secure in the building, it was also full to capacity.  Civil servants, special advisers, police high rankers of various descriptions, a Lieutenant Colonel, various representatives from all the major security services and penultimately the Home Secretary herself were present.  The last entrant was his friend from yesterday, ‘Henry’, assuming that’s his real name, joining immediately behind the minister.  You’re just a fly here, a humble junior liable to be stepped on by the big beasts as they dance their steps of power and evasion.
The Home Secretary cut through the usual pleasantries and protocols.  Bowson reflected that career women of such advancement often felt empowered to ignore the unspoken rules that gave succour to the ‘little people’.  Perhaps breaking the glass ceiling meant dispensing with courtesy, the shards of broken glass slashing away the soft tissue of human empathy.  God, he must be losing it.  He awoke from his reverie as Dager asked him to describe what he had witnessed and to summarise the progress of the investigation, or lack of it, so far.  His boss was back to his old tricks, almost by reflex.
A few minutes later he was winding up his summary.  He glanced across to his new spooky friend of yesterday who nodded almost imperceptibly and allowed a faint smile to grace his lips.
“…  So, on the ground enquiries have yielded nothing of substance so far.  The getaway van, or its remains at least, were found five miles away, thoroughly burnt out and apparently cleaned beforehand.  Forensics are pessimistic I’m afraid.  Preliminary ballistics test confirm the weapon was a high powered rifle, 0.5 inch calibre, probably fired from over a kilometre away.  We’re speculating that the weapon was a US military type Barrett sniper rifle.  It seems to be custom made ammunition, not commercially manufactured, but all this needs checking.  Enquiries have been made with the FBI, but it could be another twenty-four hours or more before we can confirm this prognosis with any confidence.  No one has claimed responsibility, which at least allows the press to continue to pronounce it as simply a gang killing.  At this point our best hope of progress is to further our investigation of the murdered man and his associates.  His killing, particularly its manner, I think confirms that our suspicion of his involvement in terrorism is correct, and as such we should prioritise our resources in this direction.’’
Several other agency representatives spoke up, unwilling to be seen as having nothing to contribute, although none added anything of note to Bowson’s summary.  The mumbles and side conversations then started as the meeting suddenly ran out of substance.
“This is entirely unsatisfactory gentlemen,’’ broke in the Home Secretary, “Professional snipers shooting presumed terrorists on our city streets in broad daylight with the police looking on.  Untraceable weapons, no real evidence; if the press get on to this there’s no knowing where it will go.  Who is the most likely culprit, a splinter faction within the organisation?  We all know these people turn on each other with as much viciousness as they do on their innocent victims’’
So that was the cover story they were going to use if it should get out, thought Bowson.  That’s their main worry, looking impotent.  The man Bowson was starting to think of as his spooky friend was whispering in the ear of an older man at the table, someone he later realised was the Director of MI5, who spoke when the Home Secretary finished.
“If I may Minister?  In truth this is not the style of a factional dispute, they usually settle their differences with bombs or close quarter killings, not this way.  Of course, they are unpredictable and do adopt new ways of operating, but I don’t think we can assume, at this point, that a factional struggle is the most likely explanation.”
“What is then?” interrupted what seemed to be a ministerial official.
The first speaker responded with a degree of lordly distaste.  “I’m not sure that speculating will help anyone conclude this matter, but we should not rule out a foreign secret service’s involvement or even a new domestic group with ex-military involvement, much less likely I know.  However, it still surprises me that, with the now long and unfortunate series of Islamic inspired terrorism we have experienced, some sort of reaction has not happened before; however, there is no evidence to support either theory at this point, other than the manner of the assassination.  A foreign security service may be our best bet at the moment, perhaps the Israelis?  Perhaps the Foreign Secretary could help?”
The question was put with childish innocence, but even the tired Bowson could see the sharp point of the verbal stiletto it contained.  The Foreign Secretary was tipped as one of the Home Secretary’s principal rivals in any future succession race.  The blankness of her face said it all.
“I want daily updates gentlemen; meanwhile I will constitute a steering group to oversee this investigation and to prepare for different scenarios.  My assistants will be in touch.”
With that she and her entourage got up and left the room, leaving the remainder to wander out in small fissiparous group-lets exchanging muttered sentences, before breaking and then reforming with others, like mutating cancer cells. Dager began talking to a senior Met officer on his right, so Bowson got up and left the room without anyone even looking at him.  He was small fry who wouldn’t even have been invited if it wasn’t for his accidental witnessing of the events.  He turned the corner to the lift, went down to the foyer and was not entirely surprised to see a now familiar figure loitering by the revolving door.  “Got a minute for a coffee Chief Inspector?”

‘Henry’ was smiling.  They headed out and walked deep into the side streets for seven or eight minutes, without speaking, before entering an anodyne and unmarked domestic side door.  The room was windowless, painted white and plainly furnished other than for several wooden chairs and a table with coffee and tea already set out.  Bowson looked about surreptitiously.
“You may not believe me,” smiled his host, “but even we have to have places which are unmonitored, it’s one of the privileges of being in one of the more obscure and autonomous branches of the service.  Tea or coffee?”
He looked at his interlocutor. Mid to late forties, fit but no longer the athlete he must have been once.  Light brown hair steeling into grey.  Yes, definitely ex-military, probably special forces.  He carried himself with understated confidence. Still he hadn’t introduced himself or even said which part of the labyrinthine state he worked for. Certainly not to be trusted, at least not yet.
“You can call me Henry, most other people do.  By the way, I’m sorry to hear about your wife and son.  Anything I can do to help?”
The suddenness of the remark was like a physical blow.  Careful now, cool.  You can’t really trust anyone in this world.  “How d’you know?  Who told you, Dager?  What d’you know?”
“Not your esteemed superior I can assure you.  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Were you a classicist?  No?   I believe your wife was once though?  Who watches the watchmen?  That’s part of my remit, among other things.  Our colleagues at Cheltenham are so helpful after all.”
“You’re tapping my phone calls?”
“Among other things.”
Affability was flicked off like a switch as ‘Henry’ pulled his chair up so that his head was only eighteen inches from Bowson’s.  His voice dropped away almost to a murmur.  “Listen Chief Inspector, I think you are very probably a good man, at least for now, who has fallen into something none of us really understands, least of all you.  But whatever it is, it’s leading to something bigger…”
The older man’s attention faded into introspection; Bowson sensed a withdrawal on the part of his host, a glimpse of a deeper weariness gaining a momentary advantage.
“Everyone in the meeting was so thrown by the mystery sniper and his motives that we hardly considered the target.  But they frighten me, something tells me they’re bigger this time, more far-reaching and that we haven’t begun to scratch the surface.  I was amazed no one suggested the possibility that it was a blind, a diversion to distract us.  Perhaps his own people sacrificed a pawn.  Perhaps they thought him a security risk…”
Bowson just stared at the man.  He must have a mind like a cork-screw.  His eyes are on me now, no, they’re looking through, somewhere else, like I’m a ghost.  This isn’t helping, get his attention.
“Perhaps not, but if we work back from the victim…  What d’you know about Sally?”
“We know her phone was on and winked off the network on that road on Exmoor at 7.12pm, 1,200 yards from where the car was found and that it’s still off air.  Details will be forwarded to the local force after we have finished here.  There are no mysterious messages or unknown calls logged.  Nothing more, alright?”
Bowson was reeling.  His wife had been under observation, or were they just going back through the records now?  But there was no point in arguing, this man might be able to help.  “Back to my main point, I asked you here to give you that information as a mark of good faith.  It’s up to you, I don’t expect you to trust me, but perhaps we can help each other.”
Here it was, almost disappointing in its nakedness.  “I want you to continue to do your job, but to share with me the things you won’t be ready to report formally; your suspicions, your hunches, the unsubstantiated connections your mind will turn over in your dreams.  I don’t want confidences, I can get those already.  I don’t want you to withhold anything from your chain of command, just report to them as you would anyway.  Tell me who you trust, who you don’t.  What d’you think of your boss?”
Andy thought for a second or two before replying “A professional and highly capable officer, ambitious, but a decent man.  He could go far.”
“Spare me the anodyne guff.  You’re a fool if you can’t see that he was a decent man, but frustrated ambition is undermining his integrity.  Not in the usual way.  He knows the odds of advancement are unfairly stacked against him unless he compromises, perhaps sells out.  Time isn’t on his side, as it still is for you.”
“Sell out to whom?  What’re you talking about?”
“You’ll see when it happens, it’s not far now I fear, too late to be recovered.  Watch how close he gets to HR.”
“He’s got his annual evaluation on Monday; I think he’s worried all of this will prejudice him.”
“I know.  Look, it’s your call.  Most people don’t understand the real nature of the modern state.  They think it large and complex, human with flaws and wrinkles, but essentially moving in broadly straight lines and therefore somewhat clumsy but generally comprehensible.  But they’re wrong; those things are superficial.  Society no longer shapes the state, not since the long march through the institutions took off in the forties.  It’s the other way around now, but there’s a sort of dysfunctional feedback loop.  A more complex society – I think ‘diverse’ is the preferred term – presents less resistance to the objective, but the state has to become more complex to manage the process, more cost, more intrusion, more bureaucracy, more people like me, I suppose you could say.  Understand?”
He was smiling to himself now, he’s fading out again, but let him talk, that’s why we’re here.
“Well not like me, nor like you really.  But it’s got so… too… complex and the monster’s getting beyond the control of its inventors.  Some of them seem quite happy about that, but most are in denial.  It’s not just here by the way, it’s across all the major democracies as they believe themselves to be, and many others as well, but we are amongst the worst.”
He paused and then continued, even more quietly.  “Keeping up?  It’s become a roomful of spider webs twisted up like a bag of rubber bands, impossible to separate and falling to bits at any attempt.  Heard of Gordian’s Knot?  And the spiders are still in their webs clashing with one another, not sure where one’s domain finishes and another’s starts, and increasingly too preoccupied to find the flies.”
He chuckled at his own analogy; a bit odd, but certainly not mad, thought the increasingly bewildered Bowson.
Henry was looking at him, “We’ve got to help each other find the flies, repair the damage to the webs where possible and, who knows, even separate a few out?”
Bowson sat back.  What was the guy talking about?  He was clearly highly connected and nobody’s fool, maybe he was much more.  He was trying hard to give him the impression he wanted to help him.  A bit too hard?  But getting this man’s support could only help with the recovery of his family and he wasn’t being asked to break professional commitments, but it was a major step in that direction and was unlikely to be the last.  He had certainly summed up Dager pretty well and would definitely be a help with his own career.
“Is it down to you I’m still on this case?”
“Not directly, but I did have a word in a helpful ear or two.”
“Can you tell me how the assassin, if that’s what he was, knew who, what and where the victim was? Did they know we were watching him?  If they did, there must have been a security breach on our side.”
“No, I can’t, and that’s because I don’t know.  A leak is entirely possible, and it’s being investigated thoroughly.  Neither you nor your immediate colleagues are under any suspicion at this point though.”
Until this moment of temptation, with someone who could be a devil or an angel, he had never broken protocol.  His service record was as clean as they came.
Angel or devil?  That was the question.  What to do, the safe road that could well lead nowhere, or the other one, the high stakes one?  What’s more important to you, your career and all that goes with it or your family?  Or is there a middle way?  Can’t see it.  And what if you turn him down?  So, go along with him, at least for a bit.
“Okay, I’ll do my best, but I won’t break the rules for you.”
“I know, that’s why I asked you.  Here’s a secure pay-as-you-go phone, the number’s under Henry.  I’ll give you a new one each time we meet or by other means if we can’t.  Give me a call whenever.  I’ll get hold of you if I make any progress on your family.  I’ll show you out.”
The door closed softly behind him.  The new phone was stashed away.  He set out back to the office to get Dager’s permission to go home and then down to his parents-in-law and meet the locals on the case.  He would come back tomorrow afternoon and get back to work.  The last few days had left his head spinning.  He needed to focus on something concrete again.

‘Henry’ left the building and went to an office, his sanctum, in another street.  So, his judgement had been right.  It had been a risk taking him to one of their buildings, no matter how clean and peripheral, but anywhere public was just too exposed.  He had bitten.  Hardly surprising.  He hadn’t died inside yet unlike so many others and was probably more desperate now than he even realised.  Whether he would if he progressed in his career was a moot point, many did and few didn’t compromise those ideals with which they had joined.  Henry had started out with them, the desire to serve in the hardest circumstances, to protect.
Bosnia had come as a huge shock, but little compared to what came after, Iraq, Afghan and other things which threw them into the blender along with most other aspects of his, well, the totality of him really.  What was that line?  Something like ‘everywhere cruel sorrow, everywhere fear and all the images of death.’  Virgil, wasn’t it?  Yet still he thought himself lucky to come out so changed, so clear, so intact, but scarred in some ways he didn’t want to recall.  Bosnia had confused him, the aftermath scoured him clean of any illusions and the other conflicts, cleaning up others’ filth, the friends lost, the lies they were forced to swallow, well, those that came after had shown him what had to be, what was being surrendered…  And so, he had begun.
He tried to keep the memories compartmentalised, filed away to be brought out when he needed.  To be distilled as motivation when the loneliness and magnitude of his adopted task threatened to morph into despair, but always they attempted to snap their bonds, straining and struggling with his subconscious, threatening to break forth through his dreams, her most of all.  It had been so hard, much harder than he would have ever thought possible when he started out: he had come to a full sympathy with Sisyphus, trying to move an immense stone in the dark.  Perhaps today represented half an inch of movement and promised more.

© 1642again 2018