Dead Reckoningby Clive Egleton, Egleton
A victim of brutal mass murder is discovered to have been using the identity of SIS agent Peter Ashton's wife. It quickly becomes clear that someone has breached the top secret SIS personnel files and that an all-too-deadly game is being played out. With every lead ending in a dead end and dead body, time is running out for Peter Ashton and his deadliest adversary
A victim of brutal mass murder is discovered to have been using the identity of SIS agent Peter Ashton's wife. It quickly becomes clear that someone has breached the top secret SIS personnel files and that an all-too-deadly game is being played out. With every lead ending in a dead end and dead body, time is running out for Peter Ashton and his deadliest adversary is one step ahead.
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The terraced house stood on the corner of Lansdowne Mews with Clarendon Road and was a convenient three-minute walk from Holland Park tube station. Behind the wrought-iron gate and railings, a footpath not much larger than a hearthrug ended at a solid oak door. A brass nameplate on the centre panel indicated that Dr Z. K. Ramash, MD, Clinical Psychiatrist could be found on the ground floor. In fact, Dr Ramash owned the whole building and lived directly above the front office and surgery. Much to the annoyance of the other residents in the mews, the top floor had been converted into a refuge for battered wives, which, the neighbours claimed, had reduced the value of each of their properties by at least a cool hundred thousand.
At £150 an hour, it was hardly surprising that the consultations Dr Ramash provided were not available to patients on the National Health. The people she treated belonged to the AB socioeconomic group, the wealthy top five per cent of the nation. All her patients were women, the vast majority of whom were going through the menopause; Mrs Virginia Hardiman was one of the few exceptions. A former model who had left school at sixteen without any academic qualifications, she had married a highly successful barrister and had felt out of her depth ever since. Lacking self-esteem, Virginia Hardiman had turned to chocolate for solace, developing an addiction for Cadbury's Dairy Milk, Bourneville, Fruit and Nut, as well as Terry's Old Gold. Some twenty pounds overweight for her height, she had gone to Dr Ramash on the recommendation of a girl she knew at her old model agency who'dfaced a similar problem. After four consultations she had stopped eating chocolate and had succeeded in losing approximately seven pounds.
There was no sign of Amanda, the twenty-three-year-old receptionist, when Virginia Hardiman walked into the waiting room a good five minutes early for her ten fifteen appointment. It was customary for Amanda to provide her with a cup of coffee and two digestive biscuits when she arrived, a service which Virginia regarded as no more than her due, considering how much Dr Ramash charged for a consultation. Somewhat miffed, she rang the bell on the counter outside the cubbyhole which served as an office, and was even more displeased when after a minute Amanda had still failed to appear.
Virginia glanced at the array of magazines on the round table in the centre of the room. Tatler and Harpers & Queen were delivered to the house but the latest issue of Homes and Gardens had arrived here since her last visit and she settled down to read it. Ten fifteen came and went, then ten thirty. At a quarter to eleven, Virginia decided enough was enough and tapped on the communicating door. Getting no reply, she opened it and walked into the consulting room.
Dr Ramash was at her desk, which faced the waiting room. Amanda was sitting bolt upright on a ladder back chair, arms stiffly by her sides. Neither woman answered when Virginia said `hello'. Near-sighted and unable to use contact lenses because they made her eyes water, Virginia Hardiman was also too vain to wear glasses. Consequently, it wasn't until she moved a lot closer that she noticed the rope around Amanda's neck. Thereafter everything began to register in her mind like a camera on auto. Dr Ramash looked darker than usual, her eyes bulging, the tongue sticking out as if she was making a rude face at her receptionist.
The shutter clicked again and registered another image, this time of a wrist lashed to a chair leg. Then the eye lit on a high-heeled shoe lying on the carpet near the leather-upholstered chaise longue. And behind the couch the body of a third woman, a bloody halo surrounding the head. Suddenly Virginia Hardiman was conscious of the nauseous smell of excrement and she gagged on the bile that immediately rose in her throat. Turning her back on the gruesome scene, she fled the room and ran out of the house into the street. There she leaned against one of the horse chestnut trees that lined the pavement at regular intervals like guardsmen on parade.
The street began to revolve and she hung on to the tree like grim death. She retched, then doubled up and vomited on to the pavement. An elderly couple, exercising their French poodle gave Virginia a wide berth and continued on their way towards the park as if they hadn't noticed her. A small voice inside Virginia's head told her to call 999 but her Cellnet phone was in her handbag which she had left behind in the house, and nothing on God's earth could make her go back inside to retrieve it. The only alternative was to go knocking on doors.
There was no answer from the adjoining house nor from the next two and she was halfway down the front path, having given up on the fourth, when a woman with a lilting voice called out to her from the doorstep. Virginia turned about and stared at an elderly Indian lady in the primrose-coloured sari. Traumatised by what she had just seen, the power of speech momentarily deserted her.
`Yes? What is it you want from me?' the woman asked softly.
`The police? They are not here, surely you can see that?'
`Dr Ramash, Amanda ...' Virginia pointed to the end house. `They are dead. Strangled ... You understand?' Reaction set in and her whole body began to shake as if she had suddenly gone down with malaria. `There is another woman but she has been shot.'
`What is your name?'
`Mrs Ralph Hardiman.'
`Good. Then we will phone the police together.'
Lansdowne Mews was located within the boundaries of the Met's B District. Within a matter of seconds the divisional station on Ladbroke Road had dispatched a mobile to the address of the reported incident. Once it was known that the 999 call was not a hoax, officers from the scene of the crime team descended on the neighbourhood. As Virginia Hardiman was still in shock, one of the battered wives from the refuge on the top floor of the house identified Dr Ramash and the receptionist for the record. Nobody, however, had seen the third victim before but the desk diary indicated that a Mrs Harriet Ashton was due to see Dr Ramash at nine fifteen that morning and there was nothing to show that she had cancelled the appointment. From the clinical notes pertaining to Mrs Ashton, the police were able to discover her address and phone number.
Roy Kelso had been promoted to Assistant Director a week after his thirty-ninth birthday. Despite the fact that he had always been in the Administrative Wing of the Secret Intelligence Service and had never held an operational appointment, he had convinced himself that he was destined to go right to the top of the tree. It had taken him all often years to realise that he had reached his ceiling and wasn't going anywhere. Disappointed and thoroughly embittered, Kelso had let it be known to all and sundry that he couldn't wait for his fifty-fifth birthday to arrive when he would be eligible for early retirement. When, earlier in the year, severance had been only a few months off, the thought of leaving the SIS before the age of compulsory retirement had so dismayed Kelso that he'd written to Victor Hazelwood, the Director General, asking if he might be permitted to withdraw his original application.
It hadn't been the easiest of letters to write. Kelso could not forget that when he had been promoted in 1979, Hazelwood had been a Grade I Intelligence officer in charge of the Russian Desk. Furthermore it had taken Victor eleven years to catch up with him and, in his opinion, he would never have done so if the Assistant Director in charge of the Eastern Bloc Department hadn't suddenly dropped dead in the office one morning. Thereafter Hazelwood's rise to power had been positively meteoric. Eighteen months after Hazelwood had taken over the Eastern Bloc Department, the newly appointed Director General, Stuart Dunglass, who'd spent most of his service in the Far East, had invited him to become his deputy. The onset of cancer of the prostate had forced Dunglass into early retirement and with the reluctant blessing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hazelwood had stepped into his shoes.
It was hard to ask a favour of a man who knew you disliked him intensely, harder still when flattery and obsequiousness only aroused his ire. In the end, Kelso had simply told Hazelwood that he couldn't afford to retire on a reduced pension and Victor had said the job was his for as long as he wanted it.
As the Admin King of Vauxhall Cross, his empire consisted of the Finance Branch, the Motor Transport and General Stores Section plus the Security Vetting and Technical Services Division. Among his many duties Kelso was responsible for control of expenditure, internal audits, Boards of Inquiry and liaison with the public. Since the SIS didn't believe in freedom of information, it was his job to field all enquiries from `outsiders'. In practice this meant that callers who didn't know what extension they required were automatically routed to the Admin Wing by the switchboard operator.
Shortly before twelve o'clock, Kelso received one such call from Detective Chief Superintendent Orwell of B District who wished to get in touch with a Mr Peter Ashton. Kelso gave him the stock answer, told the Chief Superintendent that Ashton wasn't available at the moment and asked if he could take a message.
`Who am I talking to?' Orwell demanded.
`My name is Mr Roy,' Kelso said blandly. `I'm a chief personnel officer in the civil service.'
`Yeah? Which government department?'
`May I suggest you call Whitehall 1212 and talk to Commander, Special Branch, on extension 3899, then call me back?'
`I get it,' Orwell said, and hung up.
Ten minutes later the Chief Superintendent was back on the line. As a result of what he had to say, Kelso decided it was essential to brief Hazelwood as soon as possible.
In accordance with Government health regulations, the whole of Vauxhall Cross was a no-smoking area. The ban on smoking had originally come into force while the SIS was still using Century House in Westminster Bridge Road but Hazelwood, being the man he was, had persuaded the then DG to make an exception in his case. Consequently an extractor fan had been installed in his office, the bill for which had been passed to Kelso for settlement out of the contingency fund. A second bill for an extractor fan had found its way to the Admin Wing when the SIS had moved across the railway tracks to Vauxhall Cross and a view of the Thames. To fill his cup of bitterness to overflowing, Kelso had been landed with a third bill the day after Victor Hazelwood had changed offices, having been confirmed in the appointment of Director General.
The extractor fan was not the only personal stamp Hazelwood had put on the DG's office. As the equivalent of a permanent under secretary of state, he could have chosen a Canaletto, a Turner or an Utrillo from the list of original oils and watercolours held by the Property Services Agency. Instead he had selected a signed print of Terence Cuneo's The Bridge at Arnhem, a picture showing a battered-looking corvette on a storm-tossed Atlantic entitled Convoy Escort and Enemy Coast Ahead, which depicted a vic of three Wellington bombers on a moonlit night approaching a smudge of land on the horizon.
There were two other items which Kelso thought reflected Victor's somewhat jingoistic tastes. One was the ornately carved wooden box on his desk which he had bought on a field trip to India many years ago. The other, a more recent acquisition, was a cut-down shell case, which had probably come from a junk shop in the Portobello Road, that served as an ashtray. At that precise moment it held four cigar butts but not for much longer; as Kelso tapped on the door and walked into the DG's office, Hazelwood opened the wooden box and took out a Burma cheroot.
`What can I do for you, Roy?' he asked, and lit the cheroot with a match.
`I'm afraid I've got some bad news. Harriet Ashton is dead.'
`What?' Hazelwood stared at him in disbelief.
`She had been shot twice in the back of the head,' Kelso continued remorselessly.
`Who told you this?'
`Detective Chief Superintendent Orwell of B District. Harriet had an appointment to see a Dr Ramash, a clinical psychiatrist with a private practice in Lansdowne Mews. The good doctor was strangled, so was her receptionist; the police seem to think it was some kind of ritual killing. Obviously the killers were still around when Harriet arrived for her nine fifteen appointment and they must have decided she had seen too much.'
`There's no doubt that the dead woman is Harriet?'
`I'd like to think it wasn't her, Victor, but the description I was given fits Harriet to a T. Orwell told me the deceased was tall for a woman, had shoulder-length hair and must have been good-looking before most of her forehead was shot away.'
`Have the police made a positive identification? From a driver's licence, credit card or cheque book?'
Kelso was tired of standing in front of the desk like some errant schoolboy being taken to task by the headmaster. After he'd glanced pointedly at one of the leather upholstered armchairs which the Property Services Agency provided for visitors, Hazelwood finally caught on and waved a hand at the nearest one.
`They didn't find her handbag, Victor.'
`Well then, how do the police know the dead woman is Harriet? Just from the appointments diary?'
`And from the clinical notes Dr Ramash had made. That's how they got hold of her address in Chiswick and the BT phone number at 84 Rylett Close.'
Some fourteen months ago 84 Rylett Close had been one of the safe houses owned by the SIS. With the end of the Cold War and the consequent reduction in Intelligence gathering, the Treasury had attacked those high-spending government departments which were not politically sensitive with a hatchet. Although the armed forces had suffered the most, the SIS had been told to sell fifty per cent of their housing stock. In what Kelso regarded as rank nepotism, the DG had allowed Peter Ashton to purchase the house in Rylett Close at a knockdown price. But that was beside the point, which was that the phone the Ashtons used for personal calls was ex-directory with the additional caveat that the subscriber would not accept operator-assisted calls under any circumstances. Although the inference was obvious, Kelso wanted to be absolutely sure Hazelwood had seen it.
`We both know Harriet was very responsible; she would only have disclosed her phone number to the family and very close friends. Bearing in mind the physical resemblance, I don't see how the dead woman could be anybody other than Harriet.'
`The police phoned the house?'
`Yes. The Ashtons' daily woman gave them the number of this place.'
`What did she have to say about Harriet?'
Kelso gritted his teeth. Hazelwood was reluctant to face the facts; he wanted every i dotted, every t crossed before he would accept that Harriet was dead. In a few brief sentences, Kelso told him the daily had arrived at eight thirty, and that Harriet had left a quarter of an hour later, saying she was going to shop at the local supermarket. She hadn't taken Edward, her sixteen-month-old son with her and the Ford Mondeo was still parked outside the house.
`I have to admit it doesn't look good.' Hazelwood left his cheroot to burn out in the brass shell case. `I assume Peter hasn't been informed yet?' he added.
`I thought you would want to break the news to him, Victor.'
`The police would like Ashton to go straight to the mortuary at Notting Hill General. They want him to identify the body.'
`They would.' Hazelwood swung round in the swivel chair to gaze down at the river. `Lay on a car and driver for him, will you, Roy?' he said quietly.
`Send Brian Thomas along as well.'
Brian Thomas was an ex-detective chief superintendent of the Metropolitan Police and a bit of a hard nose. Now employed as a Grade II Intelligence officer in the Security Vetting and Technical Services Division, he was responsible for clearing personnel who needed to have constant access to Top Secret and codeword material. He would be a crutch to lean on should Ashton need one. More importantly, Thomas would get a lot more out of the police than anybody else at Vauxhall Cross.
Ashton was a fourth-floor man with an office on the wrong side of the building. Instead of the Thames, he had an unrivalled view of the railway tracks leading to Waterloo, which was one reason why he didn't spend much time looking out of the window. The SIS consisted of four operational departments each headed by an assistant director. The largest and most unwieldy was the European, which embraced the old Soviet Bloc as well as the NATO countries. The Middle East was the tidiest, the Asian won the prize for the least active while the Pacific Basin and the Rest of the World was nothing short of a dog's breakfast. Ashton belonged to none of these departments; on paper he was a Grade I Intelligence officer, General Duties [supernumerary to establishment], a job description dreamed up by his old mentor, Victor Hazelwood.
There were two schools of thought about Ashton. Those who liked him maintained he'd had a raw deal and instanced how he had been put out to grass in the Admin Wing four years ago because the then DG had decided, without any justification, that he'd got too close to a lieutenant colonel in the GRU and had become contaminated in the process. They also believed he had been sent into Russia far too often for his own good. His detractors regarded him as a loose cannon who did more harm than good and a source of embarrassment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He was, they said, Hazelwood's Rottweiler. There was some truth in the allegation but in fact he was supposed to work under the direction of the Deputy Director, Clifford Peachey, which was precisely what he was doing at that moment.
When Ashton had been on the Russian Desk their primary role had been to ascertain Soviet political and military strategy in the long term. With the demise of the USSR, priorities had changed. Nowadays the SIS was concerned to know who was likely to replace Boris Yeltsin should his heart condition ultimately prove fatal. While Peachey had asked for his thoughts on the subject, Ashton reckoned it was even money he'd also asked Rowan Garfield, the Assistant Director in charge of the European Department, for his thoughts.
Knowing Rowan Garfield, Ashton believed the Russian Desk would approach the task by digging out the profiles they'd compiled on politicians, civil servants, and senior army, navy and airforce officers who had come to their notice. Then they would try to assess the amount of support each one could command. He attacked the problem from a different angle and looked at just one man, the erstwhile Deputy Head of the Russian Intelligence Service, Pavel Trilisser.
Rightly regarded as a brilliant officer, Trilisser had received accelerated promotion to lieutenant general in the old KGB and, at the age of forty-six, had been the youngest ever second in command of the First Chief Directorate when he had been appointed in 1987. His career had suffered a setback when the hardliners in the Communist Party had turned against Gorbachev in August 1991. Although internal security was the responsibility of the Second Chief Directorate, a number of Yeltsin's supporters reckoned he should have intervened much earlier than he had. They believed that Pavel Trilisser had waited until it was evident the coup was going to fail before he arrested his own chief and sent word to the Minister of the Interior, Boris Pugo, that he should surrender himself to paratroops of the Ryazan Division who were about to surround his apartment building. Boris Pugo hadn't accepted his advice; instead the Minister of the Interior had put the barrel of a Makarov pistol in his mouth and squeezed the trigger.
Two years later, Trilisser had been involved in another power struggle, this time against Yeltsin. By skilfully misappropriating funds, he had raised a secret private army of 325 officers and men recruited from Spetsnaz personnel who had been made redundant. Organised into teams of five, their task was to eliminate the President; the Chief of Police, Moscow District; the Minister of Defence and to seize control of all TV and radio stations as well as the more important government buildings.
As usual, Trilisser had held back until he could see which way the coup was going. When T80 main battle tanks from units loyal to Yeltsin had opened fire on the parliament building, he had switched sides. With the aid of the militia, he had shot down his second in command, Vasili Petrovich Urzhumov, in a gun battle in one of Moscow's nuclear deep shelters. In recognition of his supposed loyalty, Trilisser had subsequently been appointed to the post of Special Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs.
If Yeltsin died without nominating a successor, Ashton believed Trilisser would make yet another bid for power. He wouldn't do it openly but would shelter behind some stalking horse whom he could eventually remove without too much difficulty. The trick was to discover the people Trilisser had been cultivating in recent months. To help him in this search, Ashton resorted to the stand-alone computer-based information system. As its designation implied, it was purely an in-house facility; it was also crypto protected, which meant hackers couldn't get into the system. As a further safeguard, the visual display unit was tucked away in the corner of the room out of sight from the window. The possibility of anyone having binoculars powerful enough to read what was on the screen from a tall building on the far side of the railway tracks was remote, but the SIS didn't believe in running unnecessary risks.
It was because Ashton was tucked away in a corner with his back to the door, that he wasn't aware he had company until Hazelwood spoke his name. When he turned round and saw the look on Victor's face he knew something was terribly wrong. `It's Harriet', he heard him say and suddenly his whole world was shattered.
Harriet shot and killed in the consulting room of a psychiatrist he'd never heard of? She hadn't told him she was having therapy and they didn't have any secrets from one another. So what if the police had found her name, address and phone number in some diary? It had to be a mistake. Harriet was alive.
`Has anybody phoned the house?' he asked huskily.
`I have,' Hazelwood told him. `Your daily said that soon after she arrived at eight thirty, Harriet left the house to go shopping.'
Ashton couldn't accept what Victor was telling him; lifting the receiver, he obtained an outside line and rang the house. An irrational hope that Hazelwood had got it wrong was destroyed when he spoke to Mrs Davies. He felt drained, and there was this physical pain in his chest as if he had swallowed a pebble. He gathered the police were anxious for him formally to identify the body and it seemed Roy Kelso had laid on a car for him. They were showing their concern for him in other practical ways because there was good old Brian Thomas waiting outside in the corridor, ready to hold his hand if things started to get on top of him.
Dead inside, Ashton walked towards the bank of lifts like a robot. Everything passed in a blur the descent to the basement garage, the drive across town. He saw Harriet in a series of cameos that flashed before his eyes beginning with the day he'd first met her when she walked into his office at Benbow House and introduced herself, the bright young officer from MI5, the Security Service, on secondment to the SIS. A tall girl, half an inch under six feet which made her the same height as himself. A good figure too, long tapering fingers to go with the long tapering legs. But it was the perfect symmetry of her face that had really claimed his attention and had remained firmly implanted in his mind afterwards ... Another place, another time: the surgical ward of St Thomas's Hospital on the Müllenhoffstrasse in Berlin. Harriet had been caught up in a riot in the Kreuzberg District where the Gastarbeiters lived, and had sustained a fractured skull when one of the Turkish workers had thrown a rock at her, believing she was one of the Neo-Nazi Demonstrators who'd been making life hell for the community.
Harriet had looked awful, there had been no other word to describe her appearance. Her face had been the colour of marble and had resembled a skull, the skin stretched tight as a drum, cheeks sunken. The woman he loved had been just a mess of tubes, drips, and wires. Her hair, or what had been left of it, was concealed under a white turban. She had come through all that to die violently in a consulting room. It wasn't bloody right. What the hell did God think he was doing?
`We're here, Peter,' Thomas said, and touched him lightly on the arm.
Still functioning like a robot, Ashton got out of the car and followed Thomas. He didn't know where he was and didn't care. He didn't look at Orwell when the Detective Chief Superintendent introduced himself, didn't shake his hand when it was proffered to him. Walking into the mortuary was like entering a cold store, which he supposed it was in a way. He saw a body covered by a white sheet on the raised slab and steeled himself when the attendant removed the covering and Orwell motioned him to come forward. Ashton took one quick look and stepped back.
`That's not my wife,' he said, and came alive again.
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