A work of fiction
While I’m in a holiday mood, and since we have focused on some rather dry material of late, I thought it might make a change to post something entirely frivolous but still, I hope, interesting to readers - the opening chapter of a story I will doubtless never attempt to buff-up, develop and title.
Tyler was already waiting for him on the first floor landing. “Couldn’t you have found somewhere anonymous,” Coulson quipped, throwing a gesture towards the cheap, utilitarian interior of a wholly unremarkable office building.
“To be content, add not to your possessions but subtract from your desires,” Tyler shot back, almost smiling.
They shook hands in desultory fashion. It had been a year since they were both stationed in London, during which Coulson had done a stint as liaison in Washington, then, briefly, at Nashashibi Street. Tyler, a devoted careerist, had worked his charm on other, older careerists at SIS and reaped the reward promotionally. Now he had been brought in to run this nominally MI5 show which, if it produced results, would earn the gratitude of people who mattered and who weren’t part of the pink maffia of British Intelligence.
“Any other friends here yet, my old fruit?” asked Coulson. It was exactly 6.00pm. He was not always so punctual or so polite.
“Oh indeed.” said Tyler caustically, “We are waiting for you,” He leaned over the gallery . “Right Jessop, lock the place down. No one and nothing in or out unless authorised by me. All personnel incommunicado.”
Seeing the puzzlement at such excess on Coulson’s face, he explained slowly and evenly, “There will be no leaks from this operation.”
It had been four months since the Chevening event. The initial clamour - the explosion of demands for an early arrest from all quarters of the Western political Establishment, the panic of the British Establishment, the wild press speculation, the riotous glee from the internet - had died away within the first three weeks. But the pressure from within “the intelligence community” was unrelenting. The world’s foremost banker and doyen of the powerful had been assassinated on Foreign & Commonwealth Office property, dying with a maraschino cherry and a 7.62mm M118 cartridge in his throat. The fatal shot had been fired from a distance of 600 metres across fields that, though open, were secured (in theory at least) by listening devices and other counter-measures. Yet the marksman - obviously highly-skilled, obviously aware of the ground - had obtained a firing position undetected, taken his shot, left nothing behind, no DNA, and made good his escape.
There was one low-resolution image of a motorcyclist captured at 7.49 pm on a garage forecourt video, heading south two miles from the scene. Enhancement revealed a rider in black helmet, jacket, trousers and boots on a bike that may have been a Honda CBF125. He was wearing a back-pack long enough, certainly, to accommodate a sniper’s rifle and tripod. No other camera recorded the mystery biker, and no sightings of him had been reported as a result of the public appeals.
It had quickly emerged that the security operation for the weekend party had been perfunctory at best. There had been no security review for two years. Nobody seemed to have considered the possibility that a hostile could penetrate the counter-measures. In consequence, a couple of pairs of DPG officers armed with night-vision and MP5s wondering about the estate was presumed quite sufficient for all eventualities.
Political embarrassment causes internal ructions with more certainty, even, than abject political failure. Heads rolled at the Met. Protection Command was decimated. Of the Chevening security detachment not a man remained. But there it stopped. The Home Secretary went through the motions of gracefully tendering his resignation, which the PM went through the motions of refusing equally gracefully. Afer all, the only public opinion outraged by the killing was Jewish. As soon as the funeral was out of the way a procession of unlucky ministers trooped off to Heathrow, grasping the solitary FCO kippah. They monkey-grinned for the cameras beside political extremists they personally loathed, and genuflected as obsequiously as possible at the Wailing Wall and Yad Vashem. The lucky ones got to stay home and make happy talk at Board of Deputies dinners, and struggle manfully to shut out the forbidden truth that these people consider them mere cattle.
The real damage, of course, was done not to the reputation of British politicians but British spies. The Americans decided to push their way in at Vauxhall, far beyond the existing cooperative structures and protocols. Raul Faro, the new Director of the CIA, let it be known that, whilst he had great confidence that the British police would get their man, this was no ordinary act of terror but an attack on the legitimacy of the global financial system. It was a long-established principle, recognised by all Western governments, that terrorism was an international problem requiring an international solution. In the case of this act of terror the limits of British security management cannot describe the limits of the global security response. Accordingly, the additional resources of the Agency would be placed at the disposal of the British security sevices. Meaning that the resources of the Service would be placed at the disposal of the CIA. Whether the British liked it or not.
They didn’t like it. That word “management” set every alarm bell ringing. The Millbank and Legoland greybeards reacted aggressively. The identity of the victim was not the issue, they insisted. The propriety of the Service was the issue, and if the Foreign Secretary did not speak up and defend it there would be resignations en masse. But, as always in matters of the Special Relationship, moral principle ran up against the boundless pragmatism of the FCO. From the moment Whitehall began pondering questions about the wider security interest and British relevance, instead of British independence, Faro’s case was essentially conceded. Six weeks after the killing a home-maker team of three senior Agency operatives - one man and two women - were parachuted in to Vauxhall, with a further team scheduled for Millbank. Within twenty-four hours the home-makers’ demands had triggered a last-ditch rearguard action to confine the interlopers to just these three and to a purely advisory role. Finally, the Foreign Secretary was persuaded to inform the Secretary of State that the fracas was compromising the investigation and Faro had to be satisfied with what he had got. The greybeards had just about held their ground, and the Americans were prevented from initiating actions via MI5 field personnel.
They were not wholly inconvenienced, though. They had a willing outlet in the Israelis, who were openly running around the country in search of someone to kill. It was known that they were receiving forensic and other intelligence, including names of potential suspects, from sources identified at Millbank and CTC. No one was willing to stop it, of course. There were Jews with double loyalties at every level of the Service. Then, with the arrival of the American trio, there was yet another one. It was politically impossible to remove any of them. So division and mistrust multiplied. The circulation of intelligence that conflicted with the American and Israeli preference for an Islamic connection began to suffer ad hoc restrictions. Some wag coined the term “gentile property” for the rest. It was an unedifying and unprecedentedly bad way to manage the most secret affairs of state.
At 13 weeks in, the directors of both services held a TS meeting with the Foreign Secretary at Northholt. Some plain truths were spoken, after which it was agreed to sanction an independent, parallel process piggy-backing off the existing investigation, and tasked with formulating a critical assessment of its performance. It would be shuttered and funded off the books. Three competing models were examined before Review Plus was chosen. It was agreed that an officer from SIS, not MI5, would head the team, and Martin Tyler’s name was suggested. The following day he was called to the top floor of Vauxhall and told he had four weeks to make Review Plus a reality.
He had made the schedule work. Whether he had resolved all the problems of understanding the victim as well as the assassin he would now find out.
“Right, we will begin,” he said, rubbing his hands together as he entered the room with Coulson in tow. Four men and two women fell silent and, at Tyler’s gesture, took their seats at a round conference table. Coulson, still standing, eyed each of the faces. An Indian, two women, a homosexual, and two old-school pros. Probably not that bad, he thought, for this day and age. He drew back the remaining chair and took the seventh place at the table.
“Welcome to Operation Threshold,” declared Tyler, “Since I am the only one here who knows everybody I will do the introductions and then move on to an overview of the operation, its remit, its structure, and what I want from you all.”
“Bill Ketteridge, SO15,” announced a short, solidly-built man in a white forensic suit. He was addressing a man garbed likewise, but in blue. “You’re the pathologist. I think we’ve met before,” said Ketteridge, “Is it alright to take a look?”
The man in blue remembered him. “This one must have been important for you people to be here so fast”
“We had a call from the local lads,” Ketteridge explained.
“Actually, it’s all rather straightforward,” the pathologist said, leading him over to the body.
The victim was a male in his later years. There was a lot of blood. He was lying on his back, arms flung outwards, one leg draped over a piano stool he must have taken with him as he fell.
“As you see, death was instantaneous and caused by whatever is embedded over there.”
Ketteridge picked his way around the blood splatter, and got down on all fours. He looked through the line to the coin-sized hole high in the central sash, visible against the dark London sky.
“Nice place, isn’t it?” continued the pathologist, “A bit beyond my pay-grade, sadly. Must have been a very important chap.”
“You would think so,” said Ketteridge.
“Starting on my right. Mike Roberts has a long experience of Special Branch in its many guises. He will be point man for us, that is, he will cover our back. Mike is plugged in. He is presently an SO15 Threat Assessment officer, and I think it is fair to say there is no useful scrap of information on viable terrorist threat within our borders that does not cross his desk. If we are compromised in any way there is a good chance he will hear about it, and be able to act accordingly.
“Helen Cross has worked for Mike during the Special Branch days. She is currently MI5, but running between the services as checking officer. She’s there to make sure that incoming intelligence is shared with the right people - a position with its challenges at present, as we know. She will also operate as point man. After tonight, neither Helen nor Mike will visit this building unless circumstances dictate, and if we maintain an efficient blackout we will not need to see either of them here again. They are, though, essential members of this team for reasons I shall come to shortly.”
“According to his wife he was playing the piano at the time,” said the pathologist, “What a beauty, though, hey?”
“The wife?” asked Ketteridge, incredulously.
“The piano. What I wouldn’t give for one like this in our place! Not that we could fit it in or that my talents could do justice to it. I’m only self-taught. But so was our friend here.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because there is no music score on the stand, and none in the piano stool. No music anywhere. He must have played by ear. In any case he was looking down at his right hand when he was struck. That would account for the high entry point and the occipital cranial fragmentation. Just an initial assessment, you understand. I’ll be able to tell you later what tune he was playing.”
“Initial assessment, sir?” said Ketteridge. He was back on the pavement of Eaton Square, speaking into his mobile, “The victim was shot while sitting in his own front room. The shooter used a high velocity rifle and fired once through a living room window from the bell-tower of St Peter’s Church, which is about 60 metres to the north east of the front elevation of the building. No problem for distance but quite a tricky angle. He must have gained entry to the tower during Evensong. Whether anyone saw him is not yet known. My guess is not. The firing site looks clean but we’ll know when forensics have finished. He did have to remove some wooden louvres that were fixed across the tower windows, so maybe there’ll be something. Overall, though, it looks like a professional’s work.”
“Dilip Krishnatreya will act as my deputy if I am indisposed for any reason. He is a senior data analyst at Cheltenham. He has hand-picked a team of three analysts for us, all from Cheltenham, and they will be installed in the data suite tomorrow morning. He won’t mind me saying theirs is the donkey-work. But it is the core of the review aspect of our remit. Dilip’s team will generate broad-picture scenarios out of the mass of intelligence, police work, forensics, applicable criminal records, interpol records, army records, civil records, and so forth; and he will do this entirely free of the agendas that have dominated the Vauxhall investigation.
“Clare Heywood is a professor of international relations at Cambridge POLIS. She teaches globalisation, and she has also published a number of papers on American military and industrial hegemony. Fortunately for us she is currently on sabbatical researching ...” he looked for help.
“Currency centralisation in the creation of The Globality,” she said, smiling as charmingly as possible. She was yet to realise that this was not a social occasion. Tyler, for example, not quite smiled in return. So did Coulson, but for different reasons.
“Naturally, Clare has been cleared. But I’ve known her for nearly 20 years since we went up to Cambridge, and that’s enough recommendation for me. I fully expect her to be central to the focus of this review. She brings to it access to all the best academic thinking on the politics and geopolitics of our times, and let no one doubt how important that is to us.”
Tyler’s gaze fell next on the substantial, peculiarly immobile figure seated next to Prof Heywood. Greying hair, greying beard ... he was the oldest of the seven. But he was different to all the others. Coulson recognised it instantly. He had met his share of unusual and exceptional people through the Service. He knew why, when a man should look like someone’s grandfather, he could actually look quite capable of doing something truly terrible. It had to do with the gravity of causing death, and that gravity hung about this man.
“If there is anyone who can get inside an assassin’s mind and reconstruct his thinking, find what works in it and what doesn’t, formulate a precise picture of who we are dealing with, psychologically and professionally, at least ... if anyone can do that, it’s Eric.”
Ketteridge paused to gather his thoughts. “There is one other thing, sir. Do we know how a government scientist - a scientist at the Food Standards Agency, of all places - came to be living in Belgravia? His wife says they’ve been here for five years but he only retired six months ago. He did some expert witness testimony, apparently. But what does that pay? And would that get you killed by a pro? It doesn’t add up, sir, and I don’t like it when things don’t add up.
“By the way, you do realise that Dr Best was Jewish, don’t you? Made me think of that business in Kent a few months back.”
“Pete Coulson is a currently active field operative with experience of both services. He has worked in Northern Ireland and Iran, among others, and most recently in Washington and Jerusalem. He is our footman. The questions thrown up by data analysis and subsequent reflection and discussion ... the questions to which we don’t yet have answers ... those questions we can take to him.
“So that’s everyone apart from George Jessop, whom you met on the way in, and his deputy Dave Scriven. They will run internal security. They will search you when you enter and leave the building. They control access to the armoury, naturally. One or other of them will be on the premises as duty officer at all times. Whenever any of us are here they will maintain a lock-down. If there is anything you need they will get it for you. No one may leave here without logging out with them.
“Now I will move on to the remit for Operation Threshold.”
Grafham put the key in his front door ar 6.20 pm precisely. The house had been empty all day. He turned on the lights and the heating, and poured himself a Scotch - not a large one, never a large one. Then he went to a drawer in the kitchen dresser, took out a mobile phone and placed it with his wristwatch and glass of Scotch on the kitchen table. He sat down to wait. Again, the thought ran through his mind that he could be waiting only for armed police to break in the front door and stamp through his home. But perhaps not yet, he thought. God forbid that it should be yet.
Tyler paused, poured himself a glass of iced water from the jug on the table, and sighed audibly.
“Four months ago one of the most important and well-known men in the banking world and in the political life of the West was killed by an assassin’s bullet at the official residence of the Foreign Secretary. In the opinion of some, myself included, the investigation into what happened, and why, has been elegantly skewered. Essentially, the Service is being destroyed before it can produce a result.
“One has to ask why .... why would those who, in any normal moral framework, would surely desire such a serious attack on their interests to be resolved as swiftly as possible now seek to prevent that? This is the first and most important question we have definitively to answer. It is not a question that can even be asked within the present security structure. It is a dangerous question, as maybe is the second question: who fired the fatal shot?”
At 6.30 pm precisely he turned on the mobile. One minute later it rang, just once. “Grafham,” he barked.
“Foxcote,” came the reply. He turned off the phone, satisfied. So, now they could wait and watch again, and see which way they had to go from here.
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