The echo, p.1

The Echo, page 1


The Echo

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The Echo

  The Echo

  by Minette Walters

  The echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life ... it had managed to murmur, 'Pathos, piety, courage—they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.' —E. M. Forster (1879-1970)

  O Rose, thou art sick!

  The invisible worm

  That flies in the night,

  In the howling storm, Has found out thy bed

  Of crimson joy:

  And his dark secret love

  Does thy life destroy.

  —William Blake (1757-1827)


  It was the smell that Mrs. Powell noticed first. Slightly sweet. Slightly unpleasant. She sniffed it on the air one warm June evening as she parked her car in her garage, but she assumed it came from her neighbours' dustbin on the other side of the low wall that divided the properties, and did nothing about it. The next morning the smell of decay eddied out from inside when she putted open the garage doors, and curiosity led her to poke among the stack of boxes at the back after she had reversed her car on to the driveway. Certainly, she didn't expect to find a corpse. If she expected anything, it was that someone had abandoned their rubbish in there, and it shocked her badly to find a dead man huddled on sheets of flattened cardboard in the corner, his head slumped on his knees.

  There was a flutter of media interest in the story, largely because of where the man was found—within the boundaries of an exclusive private estate bordering the Thames in London's old docklands—and because the pathologist gave cause of death as malnutrition. That a man should have died of starvation in one of the wealthiest parts of one of the wealthiest capitals of the world as the twentieth century drew to a close was irresistible to most journalists, the more so when they learned from the police that he had passed away beside a huge chest freezer filled with food. The rat-pack arrived in force.

  But they were to be disappointed. Mrs. Powell was a reluctant interviewee and had already vanished from her house. Nor was there anyone to flesh out the dead man's life and make it worth writing about. He was one of the army of homeless who haunted the streets of London, an alcoholic without family or friends, whose fingerprints were recorded under the name of Billy Blake as a result of a handful of convictions for petty thieving. Among London's policemen he had a small reputation as a street preacher from his habit of shouting aggressively at passersby about forthcoming doom and destruction whenever he was drunk, but as none of them had ever listened closely to his incoherent ramblings, nothing was added to their knowledge of the man through what he had preached. The only curious fact about him was that he had lied about his age when first arrested in 1991. The police had him on file as sixty-five; while the pathologist's estimate, as officially recorded at the inquest, was forty-five.

  Mrs. Powell's involvement in this bizarre tragedy was that she owned the garage in which Billy had died. However, he preyed upon her mind following her return two weeks later after the morbid press interest had died down and, because she could afford it, she put up the money for his cremation when the coroner finally released the body. She had no need to do it—as in other areas of social welfare, the trappings of death were covered by a state benefit—but she felt an obligation to her uninvited guest. She chose the second cheapest package offered, and presented herself at the crematorium on the due date at the due time. As she had expected, she and the vicar were the only people there, the undertaker's men having left after depositing the coffin on the rollers. It was a somewhat harrowing service, conducted to the accompaniment of taped music.

  Elvis Presley sang 'Amazing Grace' over the sound system at the beginning, the vicar and she struggled through the service and the responses together (while worrying independently if Billy Blake had even been a Christian), and a Welsh male voice choir gave a harmonious rendition of 'Abide with Me' as the coffin rolled through to the burners and the curtains closed discreetly behind it.

  There was little more to be said or done and, after shaking hands and thanking each other for being there, Mrs. Powell and the vicar went their separate ways. As part of the package, Billy Blake's ashes were placed in an urn in a small corner of the crematorium with a plaque giving his name and date of death. Sadly, neither piece of information was accurate, for the dead man had not fact been christened Billy Blake and the pathologist had miscalculated his temperature readings and underestimated the time of death by a few hours, so whoever Billy Blake was, he died on Tuesday, June 13 1995.

  The two visitors who came to view Billy Blake's plaque a few days later went unnoticed. The older man jabbed a stubby finger at the words and made a derisory noise in his throat. "See, what did I tell you? Died twelfth of June 1995. The frigging Monday. Okay? Happy now?"

  "We ought to've brought some flowers," said his young companion, looking at the profusion of wreaths that other mourners had left in last respects to the recently cremated.

  "There'd be no point, son. Billy's dead and I've yet to meet a corpse 'oo appreciates floral arrangements."

  "Yeah, but—"

  "But nothing," said the old man firmly. "I keep telling you, the bugger's gone." He pushed the youngster forward. "Satisfy yerself I'm right, and then we'll be off." He glanced around with a look of distaste creasing his weathered face. "I never did like these places. It ain't 'ealthy thinking too much on death. It comes soon enough as it is."

  Despite having her garage cleansed three times in six weeks by three different cleaning companies, Mrs. Powell disposed of her chest freezer, shopped rather more frequently and started parking her car in the driveway. Her neighbour remarked on it to his wife, and said it was a pity there was no Mr. Powell. No man would allow a perfectly serviceable garage to go to waste simply because a tramp had died in it.

  * * *

  (Extract from Unsolved Mysteries of the Twentieth Century by Roger Hyde, published by Macmillan, 1994)

  Missing Persons

  Precisely how many people leave home for good every year in Britain remains a mystery, but if we define 'missing' as 'whereabouts unknown', then the figure is believed to run into hundreds of thousands. Only a tiny percentage ever hit the headlines, and these are usually children who are abducted and subsequently murdered. Adults rarely attract attention. The most famous missing person of recent years is the Earl of Lucan, who vanished from his estranged wife's house on 7 November 1974, following the brutal murder of Sandra Rivett, his children's nanny, and the attempted murder of Lady Lucan. He was never seen again, nor was his body found, but there seems little mystery about why he chose to vanish. Less explicable were the disappearances of two other 'missing persons': Peter Fenton, QBE, a Foreign Office 'high flyer', and James Streeter, a merchant banker.

  The Case of the Vanishing Diplomat Peter Fenton, QBE

  The disappearance of Peter Fenton during the evening of 3 July 1988, only hours before his wife's body was discovered in the bedroom of their Knightsbridge home, created a sensation in the British press. The house was less than a mile from where the terrible Lucan tragedy had been played out nearly fourteen years before, and the parallels between Peter Fenton and Lord 'Lucky' Lucan were startling. The two men had moved in similar social circles and both were known to have loyal friends who would help them; each man's car was later found abandoned on the south coast of England, leading to speculation that they had fled across the Channel to France; there was even a bizarre similarity in their appearance, both being tall, dark and conventionally handsome.

  But comparisons with the Lucan case ended when the police revealed that, following detailed forensic examination of the house and body, they were satisfied that Verity Fenton had committed suicide. She had hanged herself from a rafter in the attic some time during the evening of 1 July while Peter Fenton was on
a five-day visit to Washington. A reconstruction of the evidence suggested that, on his return from America during the afternoon of 3 July, he had found her suicide note on the hall table and then searched the house for her. There seems no doubt that it was he who cut her down and he who laid her out on the bed. Nor is there any doubt that he phoned his stepdaughter and asked her to come to the house that evening with her husband. He did not warn her of what she would find, nor did he mention that he wouldn't be there, but he told her he would leave the door on the latch. She described him as sounding "Very tired."

  Unlike Lord Lucan, who was formally committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court after the Inquest into the death of Sandra Rivett, Peter Fenton was effectively absolved of blame for the death of his wife, Verity. A verdict of "suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed" was recorded, following evidence from her daughter that she had been unnaturally depressed while her husband was away. This was borne out by her suicide note which said simply: "Forgive me. I can't bear it any more, darling. Please don't blame yourself. Your betrayals are nothing compared with mine."

  However, the question remained: why did Peter Fenton vanish? It seemed logical to many columnists that "betrayals" referred to love affairs, and there was much speculation that he had run to the comforting arms of a mistress. But this did not explain why his car was found abandoned near a cross-Channel ferry port, nor why he continued in hiding after the inquest verdict had been published. Interest began to centre on his job in the Foreign Office and the two postings he had held in Washington (1981-3 and 1985-7), where he was thought to have had access to highly secret information about NATO.

  Was it coincidence that Fenton had vanished only weeks after the arrest of Nathan Driberg* in America?

  * Nathan Driberg (b. 1941, Sacramento, California) joined the CIA from Harvard in 1962. Although a man of high intellect he failed to make progress within the CIA and is said to have become increasingly angry with the system. Some time during the early 1980s he conceived the idea of a syndicated spying ring whose aims would be purely profit-making and whose members would be known only to him. Information was supplied by syndicate members and sold on to a selected buyer. Purchasing countries are said to have included Russia, have contained other CIA agents, members of Congress, foreign diplomats, journalists and industrialists, but, as Driberg has consistently refused to name any other person, their identities remain a secret. The syndicate's activities were only discovered when one of its members, Harry Castilli, a CIA agent, began to adopt an overly lavish lifestyle. In return for immunity, he led investigators to Driberg and testified against him at his trial. Shortly after Driberg's arrest, a French diplomat and a prominent US Congressman both committed suicide. A UK diplomat, Peter Fenton, vanished.

  Why had he made the five-day trip to Washington alone when it must have been clear to him that his wife was deeply depressed? Could it have been a desperate attempt to find out if Driberg was going to talk in order to then reassure Verity that he was safe? For why had she written of "betrayals" before hanging herself unless she had known that her husband was a spy? Parallels were now drawn, not with Lord Lucan, but with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, the notorious Foreign Office spies of the 1930s and 1940s, who disappeared in 1951 after being warned by Kirn Philby that a counter-intelligence investigation by British and American agencies was closing in on them. Had Peter Fenton, like Donald Maclean, used his position of trust in our Washington Embassy to betray his country?

  Sadly, we shall probably never know because, if Peter Fenton was a traitor, then he did it for the money and he is unlikely to resurface as Burgess and Maclean did in Moscow in 1956, claiming a long-standing allegiance to communism. With the sort of wealth that the Driberg syndicate is said to have made, he could have had millions stashed away in Switzerland with which to fund a new identity for himself. But, according to his stepdaughter, Marilyn Burghley, it would be wrong to assume that he benefited from his treachery. "You have to understand that Peter adored my mother. I never believed that "betrayals" meant he'd had affairs. Which means, I suppose, that I have to accept he was betraying his country, and that she knew about it. Perhaps he asked her to run away with him, and when she refused, he accused her of not loving him. I think they must have had a terrible row for her to kill herself like that. Whatever the truth, life without her would have been something he couldn't bear. My mother's death was a far worse punishment than anything the courts could have given him."

  An examination of Peter Fenton's earlier life and background sheds little further light on the mystery. Born on 5 March 1950, he was the adopted son of Jean and Harold Fenton of Colchester, Essex. Jean always described him as her "little miracle" because she was forty-two at the time of the adoption and had given up hope of a child. She and her husband were both teachers and lavished time and effort on their son. Their reward was a gifted child who won scholarships first to Winchester and then to Cambridge, where he read classics. However, he became gradually estranged from his parents during his teenage years, spending fewer vacations in Essex and preferring whenever possible to stay with friends in London. There is evidence that he resented his humble background and set out to rise above it. He showed little love for his adoptive parents.

  In a letter to his brother in 1971, Harold Fenton wrote: "Peter has broken Jean's heart and I shall never forgive him for it. When I tackled him about his gambling, he asked me if I'd rather he stole to buy his way out of our lives and our house. He's ashamed of us. Apparently, he intends joining the Foreign Office when he leaves Cambridge and he wanted to 'warn' us that we will see very little of him once that happens. His career must come first. I asked him if he had any explanation for why God saw fit to bless us with so objectionable a child and he said: 'I made you proud. What more did you want?' I would have struck him had Jean not been present."

  Peter Fenton joined the Foreign Office from Cambridge in 1972, and was spotted early by Sir Angus Fraser, then ambassador in Paris. With Fraser's backing, Fenton seemed set for a glittering career. However, his marriage to Verity Standish in 1980 was seen by many as a mistake, and his meteoric rise appeared to falter. Verity, a widow with two teenage children, was thirteen years older than Fenton and, because of her age, was considered an unsuitable wife for a future ambassador. Interestingly, in view of what he had said to his father ten years earlier, Fenton chose to put his love for Verity before his career, and his decision would seem to have been vindicated when he won his first posting to Washington in September 1981.

  There followed seven years of apparently blameless marriage and dedicated work. Fenton was awarded the QBE in 1983 for services to Her Majesty's government during the Falklands War, and Verity proved a loyal wife and much-sought-after hostess for official functions. Her children, who spent their vacations with the couple in whichever part of the world they were, remember Fenton with affection. "He was always very kind to us," said Verity's son, Anthony Standish. "He told me once that he always thought money and ambition were the only things that mattered in life until my mother showed him how to love. That's why I don't believe he was a traitor. The money wouldn't have attracted him. If you want my opinion, it was she who was having the affair. She was the sort of woman who needed constant demonstrations of love, probably because my real father was a womanizer and their marriage had been an unhappy one. Perhaps she felt neglected because Peter was working so hard at that time, and she slid into infidelity by default. If Peter found out about it and threatened to leave her, it would explain why she hanged herself."

  But, unfortunately, it explains nothing else. Why did Peter Fenton vanish? Is he alive or dead? Was he a spy, a philandering husband or a cuckold? Can we really believe that love for Verity transformed him from ambitious materialist to loving husband and stepfather? And, if he loved her as much as his stepchildren claim he did, what did he do before he left for Washington that sent his wife into such a spiral of despair that she killed herself? More intriguingly, in view of its anonymity an
d the absence of an envelope, was Verity's suicide note addressed to him or to someone else?

  The truth may well lie in what Jean Fenton wrote in her diary on his fifth birthday: "How Peter does love acting. Today he's playing the part of the perfect child. Tomorrow it will be the devil. I wish I knew which of these various Peters is the real one."

  The Case of the Absconding Merchant Banker—James Streeter

  James Streeter was born on 24 July 1951, the elder son of Kenneth and Hilary Streeter of Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Durham University, where he read modern languages. On graduation, he took a job in Paris with Le Fournet, a French merchant bank, where he remained for five years before moving to a sister bank in Brussels. While there, he met and married Janine Ferrer, but the marriage lasted less than three years and, following his divorce in 1983, he returned to Britain to take a job with Lowenstein's Merchant Bank in the City of London. In 1986 he married a promising young woman who was seven years his junior. Kenneth and Hilary Streeter describe the marriage as a bad one. "They had very little in common," said Hilary, "which led to rows, but it's ridiculous to suggest that depression over his marital problems prompted James to become a thief. In any case, if the police are to be believed, he began embezzling before his marriage, so the facts don't even add up. It makes us so angry that our son's reputation can be destroyed like this simply because they have taken everything at face value. It's his employer who deserves to be reviled, not James." Taken at face value, James Streeter's disappearance is as self-explanatory as Lord Lucan's for, within days of deserting his desk at Lowenstein's Merchant Bank on Friday, 27 April 1990, and in his absence, he was charged with defrauding his employers of ten million pounds. The case against him appears a strong one. Only weeks before he vanished, certain irregularities were noticed by the bank's auditors and were drawn to the attention of the board. At issue was a ten million pound discrepancy which seemed to stem from Streeter's department and, worse, to stretch back over a period of five years. In simple terms, the theft involved the creation of fraudulent accounts which were set up as conduits for large international transactions and then creamed of interest. Their operation relied on the bank's failure to introduce proper security functions into its computer system, with the result that the false accounts went unnoticed and the interest creamed over the years was substantial.

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