House of Cards [CHAPTER 47]

 


Forty-Seven


Sometimes I hate myself for my inadequacies. But I find it easier to hate others more.


Monday, November 29

The janitor found the body soon after he had clocked on at 4:30 on a dark, frost-kissed morning for his shift at the Rownhams service area, located on the M27 outside Southampton. He was cleaning the toilets when he discovered that one of the cubicle doors wouldn’t open. He was nearing his sixty-eighth birthday and cursed as he lowered his old bones in order to peer under the door. He had difficulty making it all the way down but eventually spotted two shoes. Since socks and feet were attached to the shoes he needed nothing more to satisfy his curiosity. There was a man inside the cubicle and whether he was drunk, diseased, or dying it was going to knock hell out of the cleaning schedule. The elderly man cursed as he staggered off to fetch his supervisor.

  The supervisor used a screwdriver in an attempt to open the lock from the outside but it appeared that the man’s knees were wedged firmly up against the door, and push as hard as he might he couldn’t force it open more than a few inches. The supervisor bent his hand around the door in an attempt to shift the man’s knees but instead grabbed a dangling hand that was as cold as ice. He recoiled in horror and insisted on washing his hands meticulously before he stumbled off to call the police and an ambulance, while the cleaner stood guard.

  The police arrived shortly after 5:00 a.m. and, with rather more experience in such matters than the janitor and supervisor, had the cubicle door off its hinges in seconds. O’Neill’s body, fully clothed, was slumped against the wall. His face was drained of color and stretched into a leering death mask exposing his teeth. The eyes were staring wide open. In his lap the police found two halves of an empty tin of talc, and on the floor beside him they discovered a small polyethylene bag containing a few grains of white powder and a briefcase stuffed with political pamphlets. They found other small white granules of powder still clinging to the leather cover of the briefcase, which had evidently been placed on O’Neill’s lap to provide a flat surface. From one clenched fist they managed to prise a twisted £20 note that had been fashioned into a tube before being crumpled by O’Neill’s death fit. His other arm was stretched aloft over his head, as if the grinning corpse was giving one final, hideous salute of farewell.

“Another druggie taking his last flaming fix,” the police sergeant muttered to his younger colleague. “It’s more usual to find them with a needle up their arm but this one looks as if he did his dying swan routine on cocaine.”

“Didn’t realize that was lethal,” the constable said.

“Might have been too much for his heart. Or maybe the stuff was adulterated. There’s a lot of it pushed around these motorway service stations and the junkies never know what they’re buying. Sometimes they get unlucky.” He started rummaging through O’Neill’s pockets for clues to his identity. “Let’s get on with it, laddie, and call the ruddy photographers to capture this sordid little scene. No use us standing here guessing about…Mr. Roger O’Neill,” he announced as he found a wallet bearing a few credit cards. “Wonder who he is? Or was.”

  It was 7:20 by the time the coroner’s representative had authorized the removal of the body. Ambulance men were struggling to get the contorted body out from the cubicle and onto their stretcher when the call came over the radio. The body not only had a name but also a track record.

“Hell,” the sergeant told the radio controller, “that’ll put the pussies among the pigeons. We’ll have CID inspectors, superintendents, even the chief constable arriving to get a gander at this one.” He scratched his chin as he turned to the fresh-faced constable. “Got ourselves a prize one here, we have. Seems our boy beneath the blanket was a senior political figure with his fingers in Downing Street. You better make sure you write a damned good report, laddie. Dotted I’s and crossed T’s. Going to make a bit of a bestseller, is my guess.”

* * *

Mattie was in the shower, washing away the last traces of the previous evening, when her phone rang. It was Krajewski, calling from the Chronicle’s newsroom.

“It’s a little damned early, Johnnie,” she began complaining before he cut her off.

“You need to know this. Another of your impossible coincidences. It’s just come over the tape. Seems the Southampton police found your Roger O’Neill dead in a public lavatory just a couple of hours ago.”

  She stood naked, dripping over her carpet but oblivious to the mess that was spreading around her. “Tell me this is simply your tasteless way of saying good morning, Johnnie. Please.”

“Seems I’m destined always to be a disappointment to you, Mattie. It’s for real. I’ve already sent a reporter down to the scene but it appears the local police have called in the Drug Squad. Word is he may have overdosed.”

  Mattie trembled as one of the pieces fell into place like the slamming of a cell door. “So that was it. An addict. No wonder he was all over the place.”

“Not the sort of guy you’d want sitting beside the plane’s emergency exit, that’s for sure,” he responded, but even as he did so a wail of misery and frustration poured down the phone.

“Mattie, what on earth…?”

“He was our man. The only one we know for certain was involved in all the dirty tricks, who left his prints over everything. The man who could unlock the whole bloody mystery for us. Now he’s disappeared from the scene the day before they elect a new Prime Minister, leaving us with a big fat zero. Don’t you see, Johnnie?”

“What?”

“This can’t be coincidence. It’s bloody murder!”

* * *

As soon as she had thrown on some clothes and even without drying her hair, Mattie rushed off in search of Penny Guy, yet it seemed a futile chase. She rang the bell of Penny’s mansion block continuously for several minutes with no response until a young resident in a hurry left the door ajar and Mattie slipped inside. She took the creaking lift to the third floor and found Penny’s apartment. She knocked on it for several further minutes before she heard a scuffling from inside and the latch was thrown. The door opened slowly. At first there was no sign of Penny, but when Mattie walked inside she found Penny sitting quietly on the sofa, curtains drawn, staring into emptiness.

“You know,” Mattie whispered.

  The agony that had run lines through Penny’s face was answer enough.

  Mattie sat down beside her and held her. Slowly Penny’s fingers tightened around Mattie’s hand as a drowning woman clings to driftwood.

  When at last Penny spoke, her voice was faltering, soaked in misery. “He didn’t deserve to die. He was a weak man, maybe, but not an evil one. He was very kind.”

“What was he doing in Southampton?”

“Spending the weekend with someone. Wouldn’t say who. It was one of his silly secrets.”

“Any idea?”

Penny shook her head stiffly, by fractions.

“Do you know why he died?” Mattie asked.

  Penny turned to face her with eyes that burned in accusation. “You’re not interested in him, are you? Only in his death.”

“I’m sorry he died, Penny. I’m also sorry because I think Roger will be blamed for a lot of bad things that have happened recently. And I don’t think that’s fair.”

  Penny blinked slowly, like a simpleton struggling with a matter of advanced physics. “But why would they blame Roger?”

“I think he’s been set up. Someone has been using Roger, twisting him and bending him in a dirty little political game—until Roger snapped.”

Penny considered this for several long moments. “He’s not the only one who’s been set up,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Pat. He was sent a tape. He thought I’d done it.”

“Pat who?”

“Patrick Woolton. He thought I’d made a tape of us in bed together so that I could blackmail him. But it was someone else. It wasn’t me.”

“So that’s why he quit!” Mattie gasped in a rush of understanding. “But… who could have made such a tape, Penny?”

“Don’t know. Almost anybody at the Party conference I suppose. Anyone in Bournemouth, anyone at the hotel.”

“Penny, that can’t be right! Whoever blackmailed Patrick Woolton would have to know you were sleeping with him.”

“Rog knew. But he would never…Would he?” she pleaded, suddenly desperate for reassurance. Doubts were beginning to close in on her.

“Someone was blackmailing Roger, too. Someone who must have known he was on drugs. Someone who forced him to leak opinion polls and alter computer files and do all those other things. Someone who…”

“Killed him?”

“I think so, Penny,” she said softly.

“Why…?” Penny wailed.

“To cover his tracks.”

“Will you find him for me, Mattie?”

“I’ll try,” she said. “I just don’t know where to start.”

* * *

The weather had grown bitterly cold but Mattie seemed unaware. Her mind had become like her laundry basket, overflowing with cast off ideas, and in the attempt to sort through them she had spent the day punishing herself. She had gone for a long run through the park, had attacked the masses of cleaning that had piled up in every corner of her flat, even got to ironing her underwear, but nothing helped. O’Neill’s death had slammed the door on every thought in her head. It was evening before she called Krajewski.

“Come over, Johnnie. Please.”

“You must be desperate.”

Her silence did nothing to make him feel any better.

“But it’s bloody snowing outside,” he protested.

“Is it?”

“Twenty minutes,” he muttered before putting the phone down.

It was nearer forty. He arrived clutching a large box of pizza.

“Is that for me?” she asked as she opened her door. “How sweet.”

“No, it’s for me, actually. I assumed you’d eaten.” He sighed. “But I guess there’s enough for two.” He was determined not to give her an easy time. She didn’t deserve it.

  They finished the pizza with their backs propped against her living room wall, crumbs scattered around them, the box discarded, her newly cleaned floor once more a mess.

“Did you tell Grev I was writing a book?” she asked.

  He wiped his fingers on some kitchen towel. “Decided not to. I didn’t think it was a great idea to let him know I was still in contact. You’re not exactly flavor of the month at the Chronicle, Mattie. Anyway,” he added, the touch of sourness back in his voice, “everyone would assume I was shagging you.”

“I’ve hurt you, haven’t I?”

“Yup.”

“Sorry.”

“There’s always the chance I might make a footnote in that bloody book, I suppose.”

“The story just gets bigger and bigger, Johnnie, but I haven’t got the ending, the missing piece.”

“Which is?”

“Who killed O’Neill.”

“What?” he spluttered in alarm.

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” she said, earnest and animated once more. “None of what’s been going on was coincidence. I’ve found out that Woolton was deliberately blackmailed out of the leadership race. Somebody got rid of him, just as they got rid of Collingridge, and McKenzie, and Earle, I suspect. And O’Neill.”

“Do you have any idea what you’re saying? The stupid sod overdosed! This isn’t the KGB we’re dealing with.”

“As far as O’Neill is concerned it might just as well have been.”

“Jesus!”

“Johnnie, there is someone out there who will stop at nothing.”

“But who? Why?”

“That’s the bloody trouble. I don’t know! Everything leads back to O’Neill and now he’s gone!” She kicked the empty pizza box in frustration.

“Look, isn’t it much easier to suppose that any nonsense was down to O’Neill himself?”

“But why would he have gotten involved?”

“I don’t know. Blackmail. Money for his drugs, maybe. Perhaps a power thing. Addicts never know when to stop. He got too deeply involved—and got scared. Lost control and killed himself.”

“Who kills themselves in a public lavatory?” she said scornfully.

“His mind was blown!”

“And whoever killed him took advantage of that!”

  They were both panting in frustration, shoulder to shoulder yet a world apart.

“Back to basics,” Krajewski said doggedly, trying once more. “All the leaks.

Let’s play motive and opportunity.”

“Money wasn’t the motive. There’s no sign of that.”

“So it must be some dirty little power game.”

“Agreed. Which means O’Neill wasn’t the man behind it.”

“He had the opportunity, though.”

“Not for all the leaks. Some of them were from Government, not from the Party. Highly confidential stuff that wouldn’t have been available even to every member of the Cabinet, let alone a party official.”

“Not even Teddy Williams?”

“He would scarcely need to burgle his own files, would he? Least of all files that dropped his chum Samuel into the sewage system.”

“So…”

“Government. It has to be someone in government.”

  Krajewski found a morsel of pizza stuck in his cheek and moved it around with his tongue while he thought. “You got a list of Cabinet ministers?”

“In a drawer somewhere.”

“Then get off that sensational arse of yours and find it.”

  After a little rummaging that exposed the profound limitations of her efforts to clean up, she discovered the list among a pile of papers and handed it to him. He went to her work table and with his arm swept the piles of books and assorted debris to one side, exposing the smooth, laminated white work surface. The whiteness of the desk was like an open notepad waiting to be filled. He grabbed an artist’s pen and began scrawling down all twenty-two names.

“OK. Who could have been responsible for the leaks? Come on, Mattie.

  Think!”

  She paced the room as she concentrated, trying to find her way through the bureaucratic maze. “There were two leaks which could only have come from inside the Cabinet,” she said at last. “The Territorial Army cuts and the Renox drug approval. And at a guess I think we can add the cancellation of the hospital program; I never bought into the idea that O’Neill and the Party were deeply involved.”

“So who in Government would have known about those?”

“Whoever was on the relevant Cabinet committee.”

“Ready to play when you are,” he said, pen poised.

  Slowly she began reciting the members of the various ministerial groups that would have had early knowledge of the decisions. “Right, the TA cuts,” she began. “There’s the Defense Secretary, the Financial Secretary, the Chancellor possibly.” The membership of Cabinet committees was supposed to be confidential but was the subject of informed gossip among everyone in the lobby. “And of course the Prime Minister.” She was counting off on her fingers.

“Then there’s the Employment Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, too.”

  He ticked the names on the list.

“The hospital scheme would have been an entirely different committee. Health Secretary, Treasury Ministers, Trade and Industry, Education, Environment. I think that’s it.”

  More ticks.

“But the Renox drug approval…Damn it, Johnnie, that wouldn’t have gone to any Cabinet committee. It was a departmental thing, would’ve been handled by the Health Secretary and his Ministers. The Prime Minister’s office would have heard about it, of course. I can’t think of anyone else.”

  Now she was at his side, both leaning over the table, staring at his handiwork. As she searched the list, her shoulders sagged.

“We seem to have screwed up,” Krajewski muttered quietly.

  There was only one name with three ticks beside it, one man with access to all three bits of leaked information, one man who they could pronounce guilty.

  Henry Collingridge. The man who had been the victim of these leaks. Their efforts had led them to the most absurd conclusion of all.

“Fuck!” she exclaimed bitterly and turned away, kicking the battered pizza box yet again and sending more crumbs flying. Then her frustration turned to quiet tears that began sliding down her cheek and onto her breast.

  He put his arms around her. “Sorry, Mattie,” he whispered, “I guess it was just Roger all along.” He kissed her cheeks, tasting the salt, then he kissed her lips in a manner that was intended to take her far away from her sorrows. She pulled back sharply.

“What’s wrong, Mattie?” he asked, hurt. “Sometimes we’re so close and then…”

  She wouldn’t answer, shed more tears; he decided to give it one more chance.

“Can I stay the night?”

  She shook her head.

“On the sofa?”

  Another shake.

“It’s snowing like bloody Alaska outside,” he pleaded.

  She raised her eyes, whispered. “I’m sorry, Johnnie.”

“There is someone else, isn’t there?”

  Again no answer.

  He slammed the door behind him with such force that more papers scattered around the floor.





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