The smell was almost overpowering and it hit them as soon as they had forced open the front door of the house. Detective Sergeant Marks recognised it immediately – the smell of death and decomposition. He had experienced body discovery before, but nothing as bad as this and they hadn’t even located the corpse yet. Ten years ago, as a uniformed PC, he had been called to a house on the local council estate where neighbours had reported an unpleasant smell coming from a property at the end of their street. They had noticed rats going in and out of the place and hadn’t seen the occupier, a single woman in her late fifties, for some time. It had been down to him as the local bobby to effect entry and assess the situation.
You never forget the smell of decomposing human flesh once you have encountered it, but the body hanging from the stairwell by a piece of curtain wire was something which he hadn’t anticipated. He ran back outside and was violently sick, retching until the pain in his stomach was almost unbearable and its contents lay on the ground for all to see. He slumped against a wall as his legs gave way, having strength only to instruct one of the now gathering crowd of onlookers to call for an ambulance and police back up. When his colleagues arrived he could not hide his embarrassment at not being able to deal with the situation, but the sergeant just patted him on the back, told him to forget it and sent him home.
Standing here on another doorstep and what seemed like a lifetime away from that incident, he braced himself for what he suspected he was about to see. Covering his mouth and nose with a wet handkerchief, he proceeded methodically through the house until he reached an upstairs sitting room. There, slumped backwards in a chair and surrounded by piles of newspaper, empty beer cans and the remains of what must have been his last meal sat the occupier, but what grabbed DS Dennis Marks’ attention was the single bullet hole in the centre of the man’s forehead. With no apparent evidence of a suicide they were looking at a murder enquiry.
The arrival of the medical examiner, summoned following an update of the situation to CID, provided Marks with an approximate time of death of two to three weeks based on the state of decomposition of the body. Following completion of the preliminary examination and the removal of the body to the mortuary, the scene was sealed off in preparation for a more detailed forensic examination and Marks’ team commenced a room by room search. Initial evidence revealed the man’s name to be Thomas Weston, aged eighty-eight and a retired bus driver. There was no information in the house relating to a Mrs Weston and all contents of each room were labelled, bagged and tagged for transport back to HQ.
The clearance of the house took the rest of that day and all of the following morning, and a uniformed guard was placed on the property overnight. It wasn’t until the afternoon of the second day that one of the DC’s reported finding more property in the back corner of the loft. It had been overlooked in the first instance due to falling darkness and the fact that it was wrapped in black cloth. Once brought downstairs and unwrapped, the contents had the CID team scratching their heads in amazement. Individually wrapped in tissue paper and each within its own box were a collection of medals the like of which Marks had never seen before. Apart from awards from a number of high profile campaigns since the start of the Second World War, there were individual honours including the Victoria Cross, the Military Cross, the Order of Merit, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and the Military Medal.
This man had obviously been a highly decorated soldier during one of the most turbulent times in recent history, but it wasn’t until Marks came to the bottom of the parcel and picked up the final item that all his senses went on to high alert - there, in a large plain envelope was a buff file stamped in large red letters “TOP SECRET”, together with several passports and sets of ID cards. He dropped it as if his fingers were on fire, cleared the room, sealed it and called in for DI Harris, his boss. Harris arrived thirty minutes later together with some anonymous guy who bore all the hallmarks of MI5. They asked him if he had read the file, and upon receiving a reply to the negative, told him to complete the examination of the house, secure the premises and resume normal duties.
That Thomas Weston had been murdered was beyond doubt, and when door to door enquiries had been completed several neighbours had commented on the fact that although visitors to the property were rare, there had been a middle aged man who called some weeks prior to the discovery of the body. Descriptions were sketchy at best, and no-one could agree on the type of car he used let alone the registration number. They were all certain of one fact however, he was smartly dressed and seemed completely out of place for the area. Marks frowned after reading the reports – he needed to get back to the ME’s office to find out more about the body.
George Groves had been the area Chief Medical Examiner for over twenty years, and Marks knew him to be methodical and meticulous in his work, and honest and forthright in his opinions. They had always worked very well together. The cause of death, not surprisingly, was a single gunshot to the forehead from fairly close range. The bullet retrieved was a 9mm and tests showed it to be from a Beretta 92FS Parabellum pistol. Striations revealed the likely use of a silencer which accounted for the fact that there had been no reports of gunfire or similar noises from the house where he had lived. This was an assassination, the killing of a man in his eighties, but for what? The file removed by MI5? And what about the other sets of documents? What was going on here?
A full report from the ME’s office would be available during the next 48 hours, but for now there were simply more questions than answers, and Marks returned to base to find out more from the property removed by CID and uniformed officers. He was disappointed to find that, apart from piles of accumulated rubbish there was very little to indicate any more than the facts they already knew. The man was Thomas Weston, he was 88, lived alone, had no apparent family and kept himself very much to himself. So why kill him? There had to be more to it than this. He had been a soldier so the Ministry of Defence should have a record of him, particularly bearing in mind the collection of special awards in the collection of medals. His initial calls to the relevant department went unanswered, and it wasn’t until he contacted a friend in the ministry that a series of events started to unfold.
He was told that the records relating to his enquiry were not available as they had been removed from the file, and when he pushed harder a senior official told him that he did not have the security clearance for any further information. Marks’ instincts told him that he was on to something way above his head, but he persisted and went back to see George Groves. George was not available and one of his junior staff told Marks that an urgent telephone call concerning a family illness had compelled the ME to take an unexpected leave of absence. When he asked about the body of Thomas Weston, the same junior informed him that two officers from Special Branch had removed it together with all items relating to the case and he was told that no further action would be required by his department.
So there was now no body, no forensics and no records at the Ministry of Defence. When he returned to the house where Weston’s body had been found all traces of police activity were gone and the place had been boarded up – neighbours seemed to know nothing about it. Sitting at his desk back at the station he sipped his coffee as the events of the past few days were replayed in his mind. He detested loose ends, and this case was littered with them – apparently the same two guys from MI5 (he assumed) had confiscated all contemporaneous notes made by officers at the scene. As senior SOCO he had not taken any – he was left with no hard evidence at all. His telephone rang and a call from the PA to the Detective Superintendent requested his presence at a meeting upstairs in fifteen minutes.
He had been up there on occasions before, but this gathering was unlike any of the previous ones. Present were Detective Superintendent Johnson, Detective Inspector Harris and a ‘suit’ with a briefcase. It was the ‘suit’ who addressed him.
“Take a seat please, Detective Sergeant Marks. I would like you to read and sign this document.”
He placed a document headed ‘Official Secrets Act 1989’ before Marks and indicated a space for him to append his signature. Marks frowned and looked up at him questioningly. The ‘suit’ turned to the other two detectives.
“If you gentlemen wouldn’t mind, I would like a few moments in private with Detective Sergeant Marks please.”
Johnson and Harris looked at each other and then made their way out of the office. After a suitable interval the man turned back to Marks and introduced himself.
“You may call me Michael Roberts. You will not find my name on any official contact list, and you may not even believe that it is my name at all, but that is not the reason for your being here. You will be aware by now that all trace of the man you know as Thomas Weston has been removed from circulation. As far as you are concerned, he never existed and any other people with whom he has been in contact have been, shall we say, ‘persuaded’ likewise.”
Marks signed the document and listened intently as Roberts explained the penalties for breach of the 1989 Act, and also the reasons necessitating his signature. The man, Thomas Weston, was indeed a highly decorated war hero and his name had been mentioned in a number of despatches from a variety of front lines across the globe. This, however, was not is true identity and the additional documents which Marks had not had the opportunity to scrutinise painted the picture of an under cover operative working secretly behind enemy lines in a variety of scenarios, none of which were relevant to Marks.
“I am telling you all of this DS Marks because the documents you retrieved from the house where the body was found could have had serious repercussions for Her Majesty’s Government and the security services had they fallen into the wrong hands. We are very grateful to you for your professionalism and expediency in the matter. They have been returned to the appropriate authorities, and we have noted your application for promotion to Detective Inspector – this will be receiving suitable attention in the coming weeks.”
Marks stood up and turned to leave the office, assuming that the meeting was at an end, but Roberts held up one hand to delay him a little longer.
“There is just one further thing detective sergeant, I can reveal to you off the record of course, the identity of Weston. We are alone in this office and the information will be of no use to you outside of our conversation which, of course, never happened. His real name was Gordon Marks, and should you wish to check what family records are freely available to you as a member of the public, you will discover that he was in fact your grandfather. The dates of his birth and marriage are of no interest to us and his death, should you wish to check, was recorded under the heading ‘Missing in Action’ during Montgomery’s part in the Ardennes Offensive during January 1945 – there will be nothing to arouse suspicion amongst the general public. You may wish to hold on to these though.”
Roberts handed a package to Marks and watched as he opened it and smiled to himself. Beyond the fact that his grandfather had lived and died, his own father had told Marks very little, presumably at the insistence of whatever government agency the man was working for at the time. All the war and campaign medals, together with the original individual citations were there in a black box along with a single black and white photograph of a middle-aged man in the army uniform of a Captain. Marks looked up at Roberts and thanked him for the gesture.
“Finally detective sergeant, we will never meet again, and your two superiors outside have also appended their signatures to the Act, so no discussion of any of the material facts of this case will be permitted, is that understood?”
Marks nodded in agreement, and Roberts (if that was his name) closed his briefcase and left the office. The two returning officers shuffled their feet as parting pleasantries were exchanged and shortly afterwards Marks and Harris returned to their normal duties. Six weeks later he was called once more to the office of the Detective Superintendent, but this time there were smiles on all their faces as congratulations were expressed on his promotion to Detective Inspector. There would, of course be relocation to another area together with a significant increase in salary and all moving expenses. The new position would be a head of homicide and his own team of detectives. He was never provided with the location of the remains of Thomas Weston but felt sure that his detective skills would provide him with all that information in due course. Marks hated loose ends, but perhaps there would be opportunities for tying them up in the future……………………….