Prologue - FATAL PRACTICE

 

 Tuesday 17th March was supposed to be the day of the launch. It turned out to be when everything started to go wrong.

  Drake opened the door to the meeting room on the first floor of Portcullis House. Judging by the wall of sound that met him, there was an excellent turnout. The noise of chattering suggested that those present were enthusiastic about their business. Perhaps some of those who were there for their first visit were exchanging their reactions to the vast atrium they had passed through. Its airy glazed roof floated high above and gave glimpses of the surrounding blocks of the building. Although still feeling new, the meeting room exuded an air of permanence with its vaulted ceiling and expensive artworks. This was no tediously boring box like Drake was more familiar with in New Scotland Yard. The centre of the room was filled by a set of tables in an extended horseshoe configuration surrounded by two rows of chairs. Drake looked for Cynthia’s partner but failing to spot him in the crowd, he poured himself a cup of coffee and took a seat near the bottom end of the table. The sculptural chairs were surprisingly comfortable even for Drake’s large frame. Not feeling like small talk, Detective Chief Inspector Drake was feeling out of his comfort zone and was soon lost in his own thoughts. Cynthia was still playing her trick of crashing unbeckoned into his consciousness. On this of all days, he could not supress the memory of her. The pain of his loss was one thing. He had expected that. It was the feelings of guilt roaming around in the recesses of his mind ready to ambush him at the most unlikely time that he had not reckoned with. Mainly it was regrets about how the demands of his job had prevented him from sharing more of her life. Now it was too late but he could at least try to understand what obsessed her and drove her to be so creative in her architectural practice. Coming to this event was part of that process.

  Drake shook himself out of this reverie and scanned around the table. Roughly half of those seated, mostly men, were clearly bureaucrats wearing grey or pinstripe suits. The others were more evenly balanced between the sexes and mostly wearing either black shirts or jackets. Many of these wore unusual spectacles; perfectly circular lenses and brightly coloured frames seemed particularly popular. These were obviously architects who ignored the suits and either sat doodling on sketchpads or talked among themselves.

  Drake looked up to see a man in a pinstripe suit standing at the front waiting for the chatterers to get seated. He had a shock of straight blond hair dramatically combed from a central parting. He stared ahead with piercing blue eyes either side of an aquiline nose, giving him an inquisitorial countenance. He held a buff folder stamped with the UK government emblem of a crowned portcullis. Somehow just by his presence, he commanded attention. Out of the murmuring grew a hush that spread around the room as first one talker, then another, caught the stares of those already silent.

  ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ said the pinstripe suit, ‘thank you for your attendance. As you will see this room is full, which is testimony to the efforts of all those who have made today possible. I am sorry that we are running slightly late. This is due to the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of the Environment being delayed by an overrunning Cabinet Meeting in Downing Street. However I have just been told that cabinet has broken up in Number 10 and they will be with us shortly, so I can begin with some preliminary business.’ The suit paused and looked around the room to be sure that all in his audience were paying attention.

  ‘We should not pass onto our main business without remembering the person who made all this possible. In better circumstances, this meeting would have been held many months ago. Cynthia Drake was the instigator and champion of this project. She had persuaded Her Majesty’s Government to commit to an ambitious programme to make all its new buildings sustainable. I know that some of you who have not been here before were disappointed that we are not in one of the meeting rooms in the Palace of Westminster. Unfortunately the long overdue refurbishment programme over there is now putting pressure on space. However we thought it was entirely appropriate for us to meet here in Portcullis House. This is without doubt one of the most energy conscious of all government buildings and has become a London landmark. Designed by Michael Hopkins and Partners and opened some fifteen years ago, it has many energy saving features. The building is also generally considered to be an architecturally good neighbour, not only to the Palace of Westminster but also to the Norman Shaw building further down Victoria Embankment. We can have good architecture that is also sustainable.’

  The suit paused. Drake concentrated on trying to free one of those infuriating tiny biscuits that are so difficult to unpack and it occurred to him that consuming one probably involved a net loss of energy. This attempt to prevent his eyes from misting over as he listened to these public compliments paid to his wife was sadly unsuccessful. The suit continued.

  ‘As I am sure most of you know, Cynthia Drake is sadly no longer with us having lost her brave battle with cancer. I believe though that her husband Chief Inspector Carlton Drake of Scotland Yard is here.’ The suit scanned ostentatiously around the room. Drake hesitantly raised his right hand in an embarrassed sort of way. The suit spotted him.

  ‘Chief Inspector, would you like to say a few words?’ This was a verbal dagger thrust into Drake’s heart. He was ill prepared for any formal involvement. He had come as a spectator not a participant. He clutched at his chest with his half-raised arm. He clambered to his feet in his characteristically clumsy manner, his head swirling with confusion. On his way up he knocked his cup of coffee forward into its saucer swamping the biscuit and his chair back towards the floor. Luckily his alert neighbour caught the tumbling furniture and restored it to a sensible position. The man to his left mopped the spilt coffee with a serviette. Drake finally reached his full height of six feet and six inches, mumbled thanks to his two helpers, looked around the room and began. At least his brain issued instructions to speak but somehow his mouth failed to get the message. He stuttered and mumbled, waved his arm, fell silent and collapsed back in his chair. After a couple of seconds of silence, a ripple of applause rumbled around the room, growing in sympathy as it did so.

  The situation was saved by the arrival of the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Environment. Drake thought their speeches, supporting the project and praising Cynthia’s efforts, were patronising and cliché-laden. However these contributions were thankfully brief and the suit was soon on his feet again.

  'The two ministers have agreed that we should begin by focussing on embassy buildings. These not only act as the face of the country in foreign lands but they each have to deal with unique local climates. Through this programme Her Majesty’s Government will be able to demonstrate its values all around the world. This seems an ideal place to start. We shall soon be building a new embassy in Malaysia and this is to be designed by Cynthia’s practice of Porter, Drake and Simpson. I would now like to call on Cynthia Drake’s partner, Sir Julian Porter, to present his paper on The Sustainable Embassy.’ The suit sat down to polite applause. He was clearly pleased with his introduction and, while the clapping subsided, he began nonchalantly leafing through the file he had been holding. Eventually there was total silence. The suit looked up again. Nothing had happened. Still silence. The suit looked around the room. No one stood up. Gradually a few murmurs began to break into the hush. Eventually a young man wearing a bright blue blazer and bold red and pink striped trousers rose slowly to his feet.

  ‘I am John Wilson,’ he said. ‘I’m an associate in the London head office of Porter, Drake and Simson. Sir Julian Porter is based in our Chester office and they have just sent me a text to say that, rather mysteriously, he appears to have gone missing. He has not been seen since Thursday. His personal assistant thought he was in London. We thought he was in Chester. He has never been known to be late for an appointment let alone miss one without explanation. We are rather worried that something may have happened to him.’