It was when he got the Q that he began to think that the target could indicate an issue of national security. If there was a target. He was still leaning towards a prankster but anyone who’d tracked down his name and address was unlikely to be just ‘having fun’. Only the real crazies knew that Callum Whitlock was the man to beat with taunting mindgames.
He hated that. He’d never wanted to be in a position where people knew his name or what he did. But age had meant an end to Whitlock’s more active service for Her Majesty so he had to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer operating wholly under the radar. And that sometimes those that he was trying to catch would know who he was long before he caught them.
Some of the others in the unit saw their roles as promotions – moving from field work to a position at the heart of operations was a step up the ladder to them. But Whitlock had only ever wanted to be out there doing the real work. Not caged in a London office block talking about it.
His fingers played with the other loose Scrabble tiles on his desk. When the E had arrived and then the U followed by an N, he’d begun to wonder if an S and then a T and an O might follow – railway stations were often targets but also locations for those who got kicks from sending law enforcement on wild goosechases. But the Q had changed that. Just another E would mean that the sights might be trained directly on the palace.
But it was still more likely to be nothing.
However, idiot or anarchist – this correspondence couldn’t be discarded out of hand.
His phone rang.
“Oh, hello, is this … Major Whitlock?” a cautious female voice enunciated while background noise battled with her polite tones.
“Who is this?” Whitlock snapped.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Major Whitlock, you don’t know me …”
Callum’s hand moved towards the recording mechanism attached to his phone.
“… but I’m here with your son … David?”
Whitlock dropped his hand.
“Yes? Is he alright?”
“Oh yes he’s fine, a little bit shaken up perhaps. … He says he’s been waiting for you here at the station for some time and he’s unable … of course … to use the Underground …”
“I told him to … doesn’t matter.” Whitlock blew out a breath, lowered the phone for a moment and ran his tongue around his teeth. Then he raised the phone again. “Could you put him on, please?”
“Oh, I think so … are you up to talking to your father, dear?”
There was a soft mumble in the background and a rattle and clunk as the phone was handed over.
“Dad?” A weak voice quavered.
Whitlock let out an exasperated breath. “Look, David, let this poor woman get on with her life and stop playing games. You and I both know that you’re perfectly capable of getting outside and catching a cab. Just do it and stop messing around.” His abrupt hang-up was resonant punctuation.
“What’s this?” Brewer was standing by the desk, flicking idly at the Scrabble tiles.
“Nothing.” Whitlock was never interested in indulging the cocky young leader of the unit but now was the worst time that the aspiring politician could have ventured forth with his taunting arrogance.
“Whit, what is it?” The tone had the self-importance of one too proud of a position acquired through connections rather than hard graft.
Whit shrugged and tried to ease the tightness across his shoulders. “Like I said, it’s nothing. Just a time-wasting crank with nothing better to do. I’ll let you know if any real work needs doing.” He wondered for a moment if the irony would penetrate the public school veneer.
Their eyes met for a moment. And then Brewer turned away. “You do that.” His voice faded as he paced, a little too quickly, back to his office.
It was past nine by the time Whit was opening the door to his small Vauxhall apartment. His hatred of paperwork was well known but he had made an effort that evening to stay at his desk and catch up on the backlog.
His son was sitting sullenly in front of the television.
“I see you managed to get here alright then.” Whit glanced at the detritus on the normally pristine coffee table and then to a similar scene in the adjoining kitchenette.
The glow of the action on the screen danced incongruously across his son’s incommunicative slouch.
Whit went to the bedroom and dropped his keys and bag onto the desk. He emerged with a pile of bedding.
“I’m fine to set up in here so you can have the room,” he said briskly.
David glanced towards his father and then back to the pulsing light ahead of him. “Jesus, Dad. We do this every time. I’ve told you, I’ll be in here and you can have your room.” His tone lowered. “Wouldn’t want you putting yourself out for me.”
“Oh, fuck it, then. Do what you like.” Whit dropped the sheets and turned and went back into the bedroom.
It took some minutes for him to compose himself. But he had vowed that this time would be different. And already it had started.
After a while, he walked back into the living area and stood, looking at his son. “Look, David, let’s start again.”
“Bit late for tha…”
“How’s the course going? Keeping you busy there, are they?”
“Not too busy obviously that I can’t get away to visit my dear old Dad.”
Sarcasm was the one Whitlock characteristic that the father could observe in his only child. Unfortunately.
“Let’s stop the sniping, shall we? This is supposed to be a time for us to get to know each other better. To understand each other. We won’t get near that if we don’t at least try to be civil. To have a normal conversation.”
“Well, Dad,” his son said, flicking the TV off with the remote, “Normal for me is sitting by myself in a room talking to no one … if you haven’t already realised. At Mum’s, … boarding school, … the delightful ‘care home’ you’ve found for me – so excuse me if I’m not as adept at conversation as such a well travelled person as yourself.”
Whit’s jaw clenched. “Well, you seemed perfectly able to converse quite well with that poor woman at the station this afternoon, didn’t you? Enough to convince her of your terrible plight.”
David rolled his eyes. “Can’t take a joke, Dad?”
His father wondered how it was that his son could put inverted commas around the paternal designation with just his voice. But he could.
“I can when it’s funny.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re a real barrel of laughs.” David sat for a moment and then, seeming to make a decision, turned to his father. “Anyway, I can’t be bothered fighting the whole time. We might as well give this civil thing a try … for a bit.”
Whit stood up. “Good lad. Now move your chair so we can get the sofa unfolded. I’ve got to be up early tomorrow.”
After his father had turned out the lights and disappeared into the bedroom, David sat in the dark for a few moments. Then he maneuvered his wheelchair alongside the sofa-bed and lifted himself onto the clean sheets.
“Yeah, Dad,” he muttered quietly to himself. “Wouldn’t want to get in the way of your work. Why change the habits of a lifetime?”
A couple of days with no more letters for the Major and Whit was happy to assign the non-case to a crank – and one lacking commitment. Until he passed the Meeting Room on his way to Tech Services.
“I still say the E and R are another Queen reference. You’re too tied up in the numbers, Hogstadt. The numbers don’t mean anything – it’s the letters.”
Whit pushed the door from ajar to wide open with no thought to decorum.
At least McGreavey had the courtesy to look surprised.
Brewer glanced back over his shoulder and said – in tones far too matter-of-fact for Whit’s liking – “I had them bring any of your post that scanned for something other than paper directly to me. We need to get our best people on things like this without delay, Whit. You should know that.”
Outside on the pavement, the cool air did nothing to calm Whit’s temper. But he knew that he couldn’t afford to have another run-in with his immediate superior – not matter how inferior the skills of young dolt had proven to be. So he urged himself to focus on the job at hand and not the game-playing of those who were supposed to be his colleagues.
Back in the Meeting Room, he added the tiles from his desk to those spread on the table. Apparently an H had arrived the day after the Q, then an E and an R the following day, and finally that morning, the letters T, F, A and E.
“FATE,” McGreavey said, leafing through some papers in the open folder in front of her. The PATR are big on fate. It’s got to be them. Look at this …” She lifted a page from the sheaf and turned it for the others to read.
Whit scanned the contents and shrugged. Brewer held his hand up indicating the lack of need for him to read and nodded knowingly.
“We can’t overlook 7. Or the total of all them so far – 26. There’s an Alphabet Square in Bow. Could mean the Bow Group’s the target.”
The other three turned to the portly young man frowning over a notebook of notes and calculations.
“Jesus, Hogstadt, I told you to forget the numbers. The H, E and R together reaffirm the Queen theory – HER … as well as the ER … and if you desperately need to look at the numbers, the E and the R are each 1 so that’s ER II. I know that’s tenuous but I think the FATE thing seals it. It’s got to be the PATR.” McGreavey stabbed her finger down on the page she’d presented.
It is our great nation’s fate to be in the hands of the people, not ruled by aristocrats with no understanding of the lives of the populace. We are only assisting Providence when we bring
the monarchy to its rightful place. In history.
Whit sighed. “Marion, it’d be easy if it was them. But I don’t think it is. They’ve never played games like this in the past. Their threats are less subtle, they like the drama of the disguised voice, distorted bits of film …”
“But that’s why I think it’s them, Major … they’ve got a history of copycatting – adopting other methods to convey a cipher. This Scrabble thing must have been done before and they’ve seen it.”
“You can’t write it off, Whit,” Brewer snapped. “McGreavey knows this stuff. She understands the patterns of these groups and how they play out.”
Whit looked down at the unfolded pamphlet. The People Against Tyrannical Rule still sounded like a bunch of schoolboys or a Monty Python sketch but they had claimed responsibility for the postbox bomb during the Trooping of the Colour. And an alarming photograph taken of Her Majesty alone in the grounds of Balmoral had arrived with the group’s initials scrawled across it only a week or two before the first scrabble tile.
“Hm, well – let’s just stay open to other options … including someone who’s no real threat at all. We all know the odds are with the impotent headcases and the idle morons.”
“Of course,” McGreavey nodded. Hogstadt shrugged but said nothing.
“Right. I’ve got a meeting with General Balady.” Brewer stood but Whit moved towards him.
“A word,” the Major said with quiet intensity to his unit leader.
Brewer’s nod to the others was unnecessary – Major Whitlock’s tone had been enough to dismiss them.
Whit closed the door. “Don’t ever intercept my mail again …”
“Now listen …”
“No sir, you listen to me,” Whit said quietly. “I know you’re my senior in this unit and you and I both know how much you deserve that but you have no right to stand in the way of me receiving any correspondence in my official capacity in this department. I haven’t breached any codes …”
“This week …”
“I haven’t breached ANY codes,” Whit repeated, teeth slightly clenched, “so you have no authority to prevent me from receiving my mail.” He paused but his look was so penetrating that the moment was more loaded than it could have been with simple words. Years in the field where interrogation techniques were utilised almost daily meant that the Major was adept at intimidation. He barely had to think to employ the right flavour of menace. “Don’t ever do that again.” His final words hung in the air as he paced from the room. He didn’t care what Brewer thought or did. But secretly he hoped that the little upstart had shat himself. It wouldn’t have been the first time that the Major’s tone had had that effect.
Whit spent the remainder of the day monitoring other cases, occasionally glancing over to see McGreavey adding to the pile of papers in her folder or making enthusiastic notes on those already there. Then he left on time and picked up some steaks from the Tesco Express on Wandsworth Road before heading home to get changed for a run.
David wasn’t at the flat when Whit arrived but by the time the Major had done his usual circuit over the bridge, along Millbank and back over Westminster Bridge, he saw a familiar back wheeling ahead of him along Kennington Road.
It was obvious that his son wasn’t the most sociable individual but the shock at seeing his father suddenly alongside him seemed a little excessive.
“Jesus, Dad, don’t use your SAS stuff on me, will you?” David blurted with a familiar eyeroll after calming his face to its more sullen composure. “I’m not used to people running up from behind and tapping me on the shoulder!”
Shock had moved quickly to aggravation.
“It’s hardly SAS to tap someone on the shoulder,” Whit corrected before swiftly moving on, reminding himself that he should be the bigger man in these interactions. “Anyway, good to see you out and about. Been up to something interesting?”
David shrugged. “Interesting? In London? … Don’t really know what all the fuss is about, to be honest.”
“Yep, nothing to do ‘round here. Just some world class museums, historical buildings, theatres, galleries … all within walking distance …”
“I think you’ve forgotten, Dad, walking distance is something I know nothing ab….”
“Alright, alright – you know what I meant.” Whit had long since learnt to glide over the self-pity and guilt tripping rhetoric that peppered his son’s conversation. He’d tried concern, apologies, support and encouragement but they just seemed to fuel the fire. So blithe disregard seemed to be the only solution.
“Still, you’ve been having a look around – where did you get to?”
“Oh, just up and down – not stairs obviously – along these lovely clean streets you’ve got here. Amongst these kind, helpful people …”
“Archbishop’s Park’s just over there … that’s quite a nice spot …”
David took a breath and then paused, seeming to rethink what he was going to say. “I’m not really the outdoorsy type,” he muttered.
Whit knew that David could have easily resorted to a more obvious barb about his inability to play sports or the difficultly of maneuvering his chair over grass so he tried to appreciate the effort his son had made, minor though it was. “Well, we’ll have to think of something that you would like to do. And perhaps we could do it together.”
Again, a mute response was a positive rejoinder in contrast to what might have been. So the two made their way steadily back to Wynyard Terrace in a silence that was not companionable but akin to truce. And that was an easier atmosphere than many they’d suffered through together.
“How d’you like your steak?” Whit queried as they exited the lift.
“Rare,” David replied, perfunctorily.
“Me too,” Whit nodded, opening the front door to the flat. “Looks as if we might finally have something in common.”
“Only I didn’t acquire a taste for it through eating the rabbits I caught and ate in the Iraqi desert.”
Whit grinned. “Those were hares in Iran and I’m surprised you remember that story.”
“Clearly, I didn’t.” David’s efforts to remain overly serious were strained. But successful. He swallowed the smile that had been trying to escape.
Whit couldn’t work him out. One minute he seemed to be softening a little – sidestepping opportunities to snipe – and the next, he was fighting against a pleasant exchange between the two of them. The Major had analysed many complex personalities in his time but his own son was still the most elusive.
Dinner was a stop/start affair. Just when conversation seemed to approaching normal, David put the brakes on. But there were times when he could have unleashed some of his more venomous passive-aggressive behaviour but he seemed to hold himself back. By the time Whit went to bed he was almost more exhausted than he had been after his early days of endurance training. But perhaps there had been progress. Perhaps.
When the post was dropped on his desk the next day, the scrabble envelope was on the top. It was obvious. Whit immediately looked towards Brewer’s office and saw his unit leader doing some of his best computer acting. The abrupt movement as he’d adjusted from looking towards Major Whitlock lingered in the air like sarin.
The letters were U, C and I. McGreavey was at his desk arranging and rearranging them long before Hogstadt could consider calculating the square rule of the sum of their values.
“Intensive Care Unit,” Brewer pronounced confidently as he arrived.
“Well, maybe…” McGreavey said cautiously. “But it could also be ‘I See You’, though that’s more often an opening gambit, a way of establishing a relationship – a power dynamic – before dripfeeding the bait. That kind of personal taunting isn’t usual at this point in the communication … but we can’t rule it out.”
“If it’s Intensive Care, doesn’t that mean that whatever the target is that it’s not going to be fatal … or permanent?”
“Could do … could also just be indicating that it’s serious – not a shot across the bow like the minor detonation in the fountain last year.”
“The UIC’s a language school. That could mean that they’re not British. Or the target isn’t …” Derek Hogstadt’s initial offering seemed to have actually succeeding in baffling its own exponent.
“I think you’ve come to a dead end there,” Brewer interjected scornfully. “And before you get to it, I don’t think the governing body of the working men’s clubs is spending their time sending coded scrabble tile messages either.” He turned to McGreavey. “I’m sticking with ICU … do you still favour the PATR?”
“No one else has been flagged. And the FATE clue from yesterday was very telling. A specific threat often comes after initial contact so although this has been protracted compared to their usual MO, the semantics fit …”
“Hm,” Brewer looked pensive. The three of them looked at each other and then, almost comically, all turned to Whit simultaneously.
He laughed. “What are you looking at me for? You’ve all got enough theories to keep you going for days, you don’t need me.”
Brewer straightened his shoulders. “Look Whitlock, this isn’t a game. This is a serious business and I’d expect someone with your background to treat is as such.”
“With respect, sir,” Whit lied, “someone with my background would know not to jump to conclusions at this stage. Someone with my background wouldn’t treat this like some kind of parlour game where you solve a puzzle and win a bar of chocolate. … Someone with my background would live in the real world and not ascribe meaning to something without having a sound basis for doing so.” Before there could be any response, he looked at McGreavey and continued. “You take them over to your desk, Marion. I can do what I need to on this without those. Thanks.” Then he turned to his computer and busied himself with assessing some progress reports that had come in overnight from field agents. And, in their own ways, the other three all returned to their work, taking with them the antagonism, preoccupation or bewilderment resulting from the interaction.
“We should get up early tomorrow and I could take you to see some of the local sights – before all the hustle and bustle takes hold during the day. Even a jaded old bastard like me can still be impressed by buildings like Westminster Abbey … especially when there’s no one else around.”
Whit watched his son’s face recoil in disgust then dissolve into an expression a prisoner sentenced to death might be justified in wearing. “What’s ‘early’?”
“Well, for me, four thirty, fiveish but I’ll give you until six ‘cos your body clock’s probably not as crazy as mine.”
“SIX! The last time I was up at six was for some enforced P.E. at boarding school … and things have changed since then … obviously.”
“What time do you usually get up for college?”
“It’s not ‘college’, Dad – it’s some dodgy company trying to make money from pathetic misfits who’ve got nothing else …”
“Whatever it is … what time do you get up for that?”
“Most of the classes are in the evening so I wake up whenever and … then get up sometime after that.”
“Well, set your alarm clock for six tomorrow …”
“I don’t have an alarm clock.”
“Well then, I’ll wake you up and we’ll head out for a bit of fresh air – as fresh as this fair city can provide –,” he continued before he could be interrupted with the usual cynicism, “and have a look around.”
Whit picked up the dinner dishes and carried them to the sink with the tones of a brisk schoolmaster ringing in his ears. His son was lucky. The Major could have employed any one of number of domineering personae so the fact that he’d sat back in one of such lenience was a considerable concession. He wondered if that was the right approach with his son. With a life spent as Whit had spent his, relationships had never been a specialty. And with this one exceeding any others in duration by a significant margin, it was illuminating how messy such things could truly be.
It might have been the biting freshness of the morning. It might have been his musing the previous night as to the correct approach. But whatever motivated it, Whit himself was surprised when he heard his voice send the sentence out across Kennington Lane as his son wheeled along gloomily beside him.
“How fast can you go in this thing?”
David’s head snapped around. But the shocked grimace slid quickly into a look of almost pleased disbelief. Perhaps frankness was more worthy of respect th an the pretense of turning a blind eye or the pandering of excessive assistance.
The portent of a smile was shortlived, though. David seemed able to move through a range of emotions as if gravity had control and he couldn’t grab onto one and just stay with it. When he managed to do so, he rarely steadied himself with a branch reeking of optimism.
“It’s rubbish actually. Can’t afford one of the good ones so I’m stuck with clumsy and heavy.” He shrugged, irritably.
“That’s no way to refer to your dear old Dad.” Whit was trying another tack. And got closer to a smile from his son that he’d seen in years. So he forged on. “You just need to work on your upper body a bit … build up some muscle …”
“You’re not in the army now, you know. And I’m not one of your stupid recruits.” David pushed the wheels around with bitterness, accelerating significantly. “I know you wish I was.” Loathing seemed to be an effective replacement for strength. As they approached the bridge, he moved ahead of this father. “I’m sorry I’m not good enough for you,” he spat over his shoulder, leaving Whit standing, confounded by the profusion of hostility that was stewing inside his son.
He wasn’t just angry with Whit and the world – but himself.
The morning excursion was going to be a long one but that was nothing compared to what lay ahead to try and find some kind of ongoing peace between the Major and his son.
He had never let his home life interfere with his work. But then he had never actually had a home life. So Callum Whitlock was beginning to realise that if he wanted something beyond his desk and the meeting rooms and the occasional interesting case, it might not be something that he could easily compartmentalise. Especially with his son. And their history. He had long told himself that regrets were pointless but he knew that was simply to justify the fact that he knew he wouldn’t have done things differently anyway. He couldn’t have prevented David’s accident. So rushing to his bedside afterwards wouldn’t have changed anything. There would still be a young man in a wheelchair and a father who couldn’t know what that was like. And before – and after that, he’d had work to do. Work that couldn’t be postponed or cut short and didn’t allow for breezy phonecalls or sentimental souvenirs.
Whit sighed and turned to the pile of mail that had slapped onto his desk with welcome distraction.
“Two today,” he said as he dropped the opened envelopes onto Marion McGreavey’s desk. “CUT and STAB – I think you’ll agree … though Derek may want to look into the bat colonies of London.”
Marion smiled briefly. “Nasty, though. And getting persistent. Is this gaining any credibility with you yet?”
“The longer it goes on, the more likely it could lead to something.”
“Different postmarks each time – all London. North, South … no fixed area. And no fingerprints – though in the cold weather, that wouldn’t take much effort. We’ve only got our speculation on the clues to go on for now.”
“I’m not brushing this off, Marion. You know that. I’m just not going to rush in …”
“I know. I know how you work, Major. … And I’ve got no complaints.”
Whit nodded, a slight grin joining the pensive twisting of his lips. And he turned and went back to his desk.
Two days later, things began to get serious.
Flyers and bills were all he ever retrieved from his post slot on the ground floor of the building on Wynyard Terrace. So to hear the rattle of plastic pieces as he withdrew his mail before heading up to his flat would have been chilling for most people in the same situation. Whit was annoyed. At himself for not suspecting that it might accelerate in this direction. He wasn’t covering his tracks as he’d done in previous positions but old habits die hard and he never liked to leave an easy trail. So for someone to have both his work and home addresses was a failing of his own. The ICU message was looking less like Intensive Care Unit now. He was clearly being watched.
Upstairs he glanced at the tiles and then placed them back into the envelope, his eye flicking systematically to the windows and out to the front door. No one would be using a GUN on him that night.
David seemed tired. He wasn’t forthcoming about his day’s activities but the slight flinching as he reached for his dinner plate on the counter made Whit suspect that he might have spent some time in a gym. Or at least undertaking some strenuous upper body activity. The Major knew better than to comment. He tried talking about computers but the responses were monosyllabic at best. So they went to bed with no progress able to be attributed to the preceding 24 hours.
“Nothing for a couple of days now?” Marion McGreavey was at Whit’s desk looking concerned.
“Well, actually, I got this at home yesterday.” He handed her the envelope judiciously.
“Multiple options then … for a method,” she said, frowning as she slid the G, U and N one by one back in from the desktop with a pencil before examining the receptacle itself. “And no postmark – hand delivered.”
“You know what these guys are like, though. They’ll have got some kid to do it. But you can get the prints checked if you want – mine’ll be on there as usual but once I knew what it was I kept my greasy mitts to the edges. … I don’t get this GUN thing though. Don’t they usually want to look like they’ve got a airtight plan instead of offering alternatives?”
“Depends. Sometimes they like to taunt. Like they could do whatever they want. Tell you they’ve got the scope to do all sorts … and they think it keeps you guessing too. Red herrings. … It’s a power play by the powerless.”
“Hm. Looking for a way out of their sad lives.” He sighed. “But even these emasculated oddballs find a little muscle sometimes. To get the eyes of the world on them for their fifteen minutes.”
McGreavey shrugged. “That’s where we come in. Well, before that. I’ll get this checked out and let you know if anything comes up.” She propped the envelope carefully between her extended fingers and carried it away with meticulous ease.
Whit bowed his head for a moment. He felt suddenly as if he should have the answer.
A sensation that he’d experienced before was rising to the surface – something that had ultimately proven that all the clues had been waiting inside him – only disconnected from the final picture. But they were gradually moving themselves into line. Whit just couldn’t see it clearly.
“A meal out tonight, I think,” he issued, command-like, when he entered the flat that evening. There’s a good curry place just off South Lambeth Road. Tiny but great spicy stuff that doesn’t blow your head off the way the drunken louts seem to want.” Whit raised his eyebrows impatiently towards his son – who hadn’t looked up from his television-induced stupor. “Come on then, get yer jacket on and let’s be ‘avin’ ya!”
The fact that his son didn’t say a word until they hit the cool night air was a clear indication to Whit that his son liked a curry. At this stage, no protestations still constituted an encouraging response.
The major clapped his gloved hands together and watched the vapour of his breath disseminate into the richness of the London night. David moved methodically along beside him.
As they reached the junction where Kennington Lane met South Lambeth Road, Whit glanced down Harleyford Road. “Should take you down and show you the Oval sometime. That’s a London landmark.”
David didn’t look up. “Yeah, just what I’d love to do, push my way along yet another long London Street – where there aren’t even any shops – to see a place where blokes get paid to run around.”
Whit sighed softly to himself and said nothing in response. He was beginning to see that his own thoughts were considerably more productive than any attempts at interaction with his son. So they continued on in silence.
The meal was tasty so perhaps that helped the time pass quickly. That and Whit’s conclusion to position his efforts elsewhere. So by the time they headed out into the cold night air, a little light conversation seemed a good way to pass the journey home.
“So … got any friends in London, then? … Boys from school …?”
David looked up at his father and then back to the pavement ahead. “I wouldn’t say ‘friends’ but there are one or two around the place. None yo u’d remember.”
“What about that boy, Jessop – roomed with you at some stage. His family were from North London, weren’t they?”
“Mm … surprised you remember him.”
“Oh, I remember all sorts of things, my lad. Finchley boy, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, think so.” David pushed himself a little ahead, out of easy conversational range. But it only took a slight acceleration by Whit to be back alongside the chair. So slight he barely noticed the feeling of satisfaction at being in physical control of the situation. (Athletic superiority was a position the major had utilised throughout his career – and prior, in his school days – so, as middle age had encroached, he had done his best to maintain his conditioning. But, aware that time was against him, he was subject to moments of conscious pride where previously, success would have passed without recognition.)
“So, any plans for your last couple of days … you didn’t say what you did today? Get out for a while, did you? Lovely clear day …”
“Not the best time for me to hit the streets, Dad, with everyone flocking outside– like sheep milling around … tourists everywhere stopping and gawking at bridges and taking photos with statues of bloody lions and ancient politicians …”
Whit nodded. “Mm, yes. … I hadn’t thought of it that way …”
A police car suddenly sped past, its siren interrupting even amicable conversation. So it was a welcome relief for the two Whitlock men who allowed the abrupt halt to sustain them until their arrival back at Wynyard Terrace. And beyond.
The next morning when an envelope was delivered to the Major’s desk, he examined the exterior carefully prior to opening. While his colleagues gathered to muse over A … K … D … R …
“DARK – a nighttime operation, clearly …
“There’s a ‘White Drawing Room’ in the palace – a contrary reference to location possibly? …”
… Whit called up maps and cross-checked postboxes and postmarks. And as the DARK theories expanded around the meeting room table, the Major’s fingers idly moved the collection of tiles back and forth. Back and forth.
At four in the afternoon when the others were seeking rejuvenation from a teabreak, he slid the tiles into his pocket and made his way down to the mailroom.
“Anything in the afternoon post for Whitlock, 5th Floor?” he demanded of the pimply young man who was juggling parcels with what seemed like characteristic awkwardness.
After some clumsy searching through the piles of letters and packages, a single white envelope was raised with a familiar rattle. “Major…? Callum …? Whi…?” the young lad warbled queryingly.
“Yep,” Whit answered, taking the item abruptly to check the postmark as he flashed his ID to the mailboy. He nodded resolutely to himself and put the envelope unopened into his pocket.
Then he left the building.
The simple journey was longer than he could remember it ever taking. But impatience could protract the powerless spaces in time.
Whit was furious enough as it was, though. More time to seethe probably didn’t help.
By the time he stepped out of the lift, he’d exhausted every expletive, every tirade that he could have launched into in his head. So when he flung open the door, all he did was march across the room and scatter the tiles onto the table.
He moved them into a line, with a few careful gaps here and there. Then he stood back.
HATE U FUCKING QUEER CUNT BASTARD
“Add in the I, Y and O from here …” – he dropped the sealed envelope from his pocket onto the table – “and I get your message loud and clear.” Whit shook his head and his lip curled. “Your slips about Harleyford Road not having shops and tourists around statues made it easy to match postmarks to your little trips out to postboxes. And no doubt you had your old school chum doing your dirty work for you in North London before you arrived. … You little shit. Wasting everyone’s time with these childish pranks. I’ve got better things to do than …”
“Oh, I know …”
David’s sarcastic tone was more than Whit could bear. “You think you know it all, don’t you? You think YOU’D be a perfect father in my position?! Well, I’ve done my best …”
“Not this time, dear father,” David interrupted coolly. “Not ever actually.” He lifted a small drawstring bag from his pocket and spilled the contents onto the table. “Or perhaps your best just isn’t good enough.”
There were more tiles. I, Y and O were there. And there were others.
David flicked the letters individually towards where he was sitting and, with a glance at Whit – who counted nine in total – he said bitterly, “You did tell me I should ‘send a letter every once in a while’”. Then he scooped the collection into his cupped hand and slowly began to place the tiles down on the table again, one by one:
I (he looked up at his father, punctuating the letter to become a word … a person)
Y O U N G (a glance this time, with eyebrows raised)
and then finally
I C U
His face was almost cold. If it hadn’t been clenched with years of anger. He looked directly at his father. Waiting.
“What about it?”
Whit couldn’t have said anything worse.
David shoved himself away from the table so hard that his chair smashed into the sofa behind him. “Typical!” he bellowed. “Just a little thing to you, was it? Just a minor blip on your radar?! I fell from some stupid obstacle course wall trying to be just like you and ended up in intensive care and you … you couldn’t care less, could you?” His fury wouldn’t allow him to extricate himself from the maze of furniture that he’d created. Back and forth he went – jammed between the table and the sofa. And that frustration inflamed him further.
“I was ELEVEN! Eleven years old! And it wasn’t important enough for you to be there. For you to tear yourself away from Her Majesty’s Service. …Well, look what it’s made me, Dad! Useless! I’m a useless specimen of a human being. Not good enough for you, am I? Never good enough for you! … You fucking bastard!” He wrenched himself clear of the table and the sofa and wheeled over to his bag on the floor. “Though that’s really me, isn’t it, Dad?” He threw his clothes into the rucksack like old rags. “I’m the fucking bastard. … Got in the way a bit, didn’t I? Caused you no end of trouble … even though you never took the time to come and see me. Somehow I still managed to mess things up for you. … But not as much as you fucked me over.” He stopped filling his bag with the crumpled clothes and sat, panting loudly. By the time he spoke again, his voice was lower. More measured. “I never owed you anything. But you were my father. You owed m …”
“I am your father,” Whit said quietly.
David looked through a fearsome scowl with more hatred than Whit had ever seen.
Whit was confused. He didn’t like seeing his son in pain. But he couldn’t excuse the juvenile troublemaking. And something else was nagging at him. Coaxing his mind away from the explosion of inner turmoil he was witnessing. He dropped his arm from the table and it brushed against his pocket.
“Hold on … if you still had those letters, what are…?” He ripped open the envelope and poured the tiles onto the table. His finger moved them into line. Not I Y O but
O W N
Whit looked at his son and then back at the letters on the table, the new three sitting by David’s remaining tiles like a title. And scattered below those was the collection from the office. And that’s when he saw it. Some of the tiles were different – a little lighter than the others … barely noticeable but now glaringly obvious. Most of them matched David’s but there were six that didn’t.
I C U and G U N. Those weren’t the same. And neither were the new three.
Whit stared at them. And then, as a chilling feeling beginning to sicken him, he carefully – almost reluctantly – rearranged them.
W O N
He closed his eyes for a second and swallowed. Then, he looked down at the table and watched as his fingers changed the word yet again. The sliding of the tiny squares across the table echoed through the flat, grating on Whit like the sound of fingernails down a blackboard. But the word had to appear.
N O W
Suddenly an alarm began to ring. The shrill of the bell on an old fashioned alarm clock was rattling their ears.
Both David and Whit looked towards the bedroom.
Within seconds Whit was there. He reached the wardrobe door and slid it open. An alarm clock – one he had never seen – was on the highest shelf.
He knew this wasn’t David. He knew it.
When he reached up to silence the shattering chime, something else caught his eye. Underneath the clock. He slid it out and lifted it down … revealing a disturbingly familiar photograph.
The Queen in the grounds of Balmoral. But this time, with the sights of a gun trained on her temple.
Then his own phone began to ring. And ring.
And Whit knew that he was too late.
* * *