Thing were gradually becoming a little clearer. “We found this… And this… And this…” said Ray Moore, pulling out a sheaf of A4 printouts. The printouts contained facsimile copies of pages from old newspapers. “It’s looking more and more like our man has his own fairy godmother.”
Nathan Phillips took the clippings from Moore and examined them, holding them close to his face. “I see,” he said quietly. “This obviously complicates things.”
The time was 10.35 a.m. and Phillips had called Moore into his office because he had an idea to put to him. Off all his colleagues, Moore was the person whom Phillips respected the most, even if he never showed it.
Over the past thirty-six hours Phillips had been doing a lot of thinking. He’d been unable to sleep as his mind systematically worked its way through permutation after permutation. Time was running out for him. Phillips was now more than seventy years old and he was feeling his age more than he ever did. He knew that it was physically possible for him to commit to yet another mission, with all the planning and calculations involved, the long nights, the fatigue, the constant stress. Another mission might just be the last thing that Philips ever did. There had to be another way.
“A fairy godmother, eh?“ said Phillips, looking every year of his age. “Yes, you’re right, Ray. Things have suddenly gotten a lot more complicated.”
David Griffin had grown accustomed to the life of a single man. Naturally he still desperately missed Susan and he missed the kids, particularly the noises that the kids made when they were younger. He missed them playing, the giggles and whoops of joy that used to fill the house – even the tears and tantrums. He missed a lot of things. But in many ways he was as happy as he could be with his solitary lifestyle.
Griffin was a creature of habit: he liked to rise early, shower and take a short stroll before breakfast. He had been following this routine since he sold the big house two years ago and moved into the flat in Whitehall Park. He could have kept the other place had he chosen to but Susan and the kids were present in every nook and cranny and it was more than he could be expected to cope with.
When Susan died, Griffin had gone into a deep depression. Her illness had been long and fraught. Griffin had been forced to sit and watch as she slowly wasted away. The emaciated rag doll that finally drew its last choking breath one cold October morning back in 1996 bore very little resemblance to the golden haired beauty that he pursued through the streets of Cambridge thirty years earlier. Susan’s death had changed so many things. As the tiny nub of cancer lodged in her stomach had grown, Griffin found himself altering, too. Something happened between him and the kids. Susan’s death forced a wedge into their relationship and now David was lucky if he got a telephone call from any of them.
This morning, however, David Griffin felt like a new chapter in his life had finally begun. He’d been stuck on the last few sentences of the previous one for longer than he cared to think about. Today Griffin was having breakfast with another person. And it didn’t bother him in the slightest that this other person was smoking at the table while Griffin sipped his coffee. As far as he was concerned she could light up a hundred cigarettes if that was what made her happy.
“I think you read too much,” said Mary Simms, gesturing toward the overstocked bookshelves that filled every wall. “It makes the place look like an old man’s place. It needs a little colour.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I am an old man. Positively-fucking-ancient, as I believe somebody described me recently.””
Mary Simms was sitting at the kitchen table. She looked comfortable, like she had been sitting at that table for years. She fitted the table well. “True, but there’s no reason to advertise the fact,” she said.
“What shall I do then? Get myself a pair of leather trousers? Dye my hair and get something to hide the bit that’s missing at the back? Get myself a leotard and start pumping iron at the gym?”
“David, I don’t think anyone’s worn a leotard in the gym since the days of Captain Webb,” said Mary.
It was then that the doorbell rang, a big old-fashioned chiming doorbell, and David found himself instinctively looking over at Mary. He wasn’t expecting anybody at this time in the morning and thought for a moment that it could be someone for her. Perhaps it was common for young people to go visit each other at this time of the day. Maybe this is what young people did.
“Let’s leave it,” he said but the bell rang again and Griffin reluctantly headed for the door. What if it was a work colleague? In Griffin’s mind he was already deciding upon what was going to say about Mary sitting there in his kitchen if it was a colleague. In the midst of his thoughts a word suddenly appeared from nowhere. “Powell,” he said. “That was it.”
“Sorry?” said Mary, looking at Griffin in puzzlement.
“That was his name – Michael Powell. He was the guy who directed Age Of Consent.”
“Oh?” Mary Simms shrugged. “Congratulations. I’m pleased for you.”
Griffin reached the front door and undid the latch. He opened the door and saw that there were two men standing on his loose-chip pathway. One was old and one was in his early-thirties.
“David Griffin?” said the elder of the two. “Doctor David Griffin?”
“Yes. That’s right… Although I can’t remember the last time that anybody called me that… I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met…”
“It seems to me that we have a number of options – probably three in all,” said Nathan Phillips. “The first and most obvious option is that we start over. We begin a new mission from scratch. We try to work out what went wrong and we spend as long as we need to making sure that we get things right. Except that there is a fundamental flaw in this approach.”
“Which is?” asked Ray Moore.
“The fact that we’ve already tried to do it this way twice before and on both occasions we’ve failed. We might just find that we fail every time we attempt this mission. We could spend the rest of eternity trying to get this right. We may be approaching the problem from entirely the wrong angle.”
Ray Moore nodded his head in agreement and felt relieved that somebody else was doing a little thinking for him for a change. The old man could still be impressive when he was in full flow. His mind was still capable of stopping Moore in his tracks and forcing him to think about problems in ways that might not have occurred to him. Somehow, though, Moore doubted that Phillips still had what it takes. Lateral thinking was the one essential pre-requisite for this problem – the ultimate problem. Acuity of mind and the ability to think around corners was what was needed here. A few years ago, Phillips might have been up to the job – that was why he succeeded Bliss as director, for Christ’s sake – but nowadays… Well nowadays he was just too old.
“The second option is that we go back even further – we skip a generation or two and choose a new subject entirely.”
“Well we know that’s okay in principle but…” said Moore.
“Yes I know, I know. But in practice it introduces up a whole new set of variables into the equation. I know that Ray. I’m well aware of that. I’m just saying it’s an option, that’s all.
“And the third?”
Nathan Phillips sat back in his chair and stretched out his arms. “Ah, the third option,” he said. “Tell me, Ray, what do we know about our man?”
“What do we know about Griffin? What does his personality profile tell us?”
“You’ve seen all the reports, Nathan. You probably know as much about the subject as anyone.”
“Come on, Ray. Indulge me for a moment. Tell me what we know about our man.”
“Well in reality not a great deal,” said Moore. “In fact, very little of a personal nature. We know his background. We know when he was born and when he died. We know the names of people with whom he formed emotional alliances during his life.”
“Be more specific, Ray.”
“I can’t be more specific. You know that, Nathan. We simply don’t have the background information.”
“You’re missing the point, Ray.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, Nathan.”
“Forget all about specifics, Ray. I need to know what kind of person he was.”
“Again, we don’t know that.”
“Yes. But you can give me a pretty accurate picture of the kind of person Professor David Griffin might have been.”
“Well obviously we have general character projections of the type of person that David Griffin might have been.”
“Well project for me.”
“Well we know that he was a university lecturer at a fairly highly regarded college. That means that we can assume that his intelligence rating was at the high end.”
“We know that he married only once and had two children.”
“Which suggests that he was probably monogamous. Which, of course, is probably fortunate for us.”
“Well, we safely assume that he was an habitual alcohol user.”
“The significance of which is?”
“I don’t know,” Moore shrugged, thinking for a moment. “That he was unhappy with his life and needed drugs for excitement, maybe?”
“Well couldn’t it suggest he was a sociable person? We know how popular alcohol houses were in the twentieth century. People went there to meet other people. To develop friendships. Doesn’t it suggest to you that our man was a gregarious sort of fellow? Someone who liked the company of others.”
“I suppose it could.”
“Well isn’t the answer we’ve been looking for?”
“You’ve lost me, Nathan.”
“I said the answer. It’s been staring me in the face since we began this project. I only regret that it took me so long to realise it.”
Ray Moore shrugged his shoulders and found himself smiling at the old man’s energy. “To realise what?” he asked.
“Listen Ray. All the way along we’ve been locked in an intricate game of chase your own tail. If A happens to B then C happens to D. If we stop B happening to D then A happens to G. We’ve been drifting in a sea of calculations and forgotten our humanity. Instead of using the handle to open the door we’ve been blowing the house down with a stack of dynamite.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I’m suggesting a whole new tack. Instead of eliminating the problem by hiring professional killers to go and wipe then off the face of the earth we try to get the problem on our side. Do you understand? We know that our subject is intelligent, we know he likes the company of others; we can fairly safely assume, therefore, that he’s probably a reasonable sort of person. Let’s go and see him and appeal to his better judgement.”
Ray Moore’s mouth dropped open. “You are kidding, I hope?”
“No I’m not kidding, Ray. Don’t you see it’s the best way? It so simple it’s brilliant. We go to his – to Griffin’s – house. We knock on his door. We introduce ourselves and we ask for his assistance. If we do it right away we could kill this thing off once and for all.”
“But Nathan, this would take months of planning.”
“No it wouldn’t Ray. We can do it right now. And you want to know the best thing about this plan?”
“The best thing is that nobody knows anything about it because I only thought of it ten minutes ago. If we go now it could all be done before anyone knows anything about it.”