The Man with No Face — a powerful and prescient thriller from the million-selling author of I'll Keep You Safe, Coffin Road and The Blackhouse.
A reporter with no fear.
Brussels, 1979. Jaded Edinburgh journalist Neil Bannerman arrives in the capital of European politics intent on digging up dirt. Yet it is danger he discovers when two British men are found murdered.
A child with no father.
One victim is a journalist, the other a Cabinet Minister: the double assassination witnessed by the former's autistic daughter. This girl recalls every detail about her father's killer — except for one.
The man with no face.
With Brussels rocked by the tragedy, Bannerman is compelled to follow his instincts. He is now fighting to expose a murderous conspiracy, protect a helpless child and unmask a remorseless killer.
Release date: February 4, 2020
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 416
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The Man with No Face
First published in 1981, The Man With No Face was only my third book to go into print. I wrote it almost forty years ago during my last couple of years working as a journalist in Glasgow.
When my editor at Quercus suggested we republish, I read it again for the first time in decades and was struck by just how topical the subject matter and setting were in the context of today’s world.
The story takes place in the winter of 1979. The setting is Brussels. The backdrop is a British general election, and a political debate about Britain’s membership of the European Union.
I was struck, too, by its sense of noir (not dissimilar to the Scandi Noir of today), of murders in the bleak midwinter of a snowbound city, as well as cultural observations that belonged to their time and have long since passed into history. I am speaking of milk bottles on doorsteps. Of typewriters rather than computers. Of a pre-internet, pre-mobile-phone age when the flow of information was infinitely slower.
The political landscape has changed, too. In 1979 the apartheid government in South Africa was regarded as an international pariah, with sanctions imposed upon it by the United Nations. So, too, the illegal régime of Ian Smith in neighbouring Rhodesia, which was soon to become the independent state of Zimbabwe.
One of the characters in the book is an autistic child. In the forty years since it was written there have been many advances in the understanding and treatment of this condition. What appears in the book is a reflection of prevailing opinion at the time.
I undertook what I would describe as a light revision of the text ahead of publication, and found myself having a dialogue with my 27-year-old self. I am sure that the younger me might have taken issue with some of the (very minor) changes I made, but in the end forty years of life and writing experience took precedence.
Finally, I have to say that I am delighted with The Man With No Face, and I very much hope that you will enjoy it, too.
Kale watched the train through the rain-spattered glass and thought, this time will be the last. But even as the thought formed in his mind it clotted and he knew he would kill again.
He twirled his cigarette nervously between nicotine-stained fingers and sipped the sour dregs of his coffee. The coffee machine on the counter hissed and issued steam, and with the rain beginning to fall outside the window was misting over. The first drops of condensation formed and ran clear lines through it.
An old man sat in the corner making his coffee last so he could remain in the warmth, and a hard-faced woman behind the counter sat smoking a cigarette and watching Kale. She had seen the likes of him before. A place like this was a constant stream of men and women who had seen better days. There was the familiar suit, perhaps expensive once, but now fraying at the cuffs, crumpled, baggy, shiny at the elbows and the seat of the pants. The old blue overcoat, rubbed and coffee-stained down the front, dandruff on the collar. The clothes hung loosely on his lean frame. She had seen worse, but maybe this one was just starting out.
He would be around thirty-nine or forty, hair thinning, greased back. A hollow face with high cheekbones; clear, pale, slightly yellow skin, remarkably unlined. It was his eyes that interested her, if it was possible to say that she was interested in anything. They were dark, deep-sunk eyes, set too close, and they burned with a bleak intensity that she had not seen before. There was something sullen in his face, but it was not the face of defeat as was the face of the old man in the corner – as were most of the faces that came in here to stare morosely into endless cups of coffee.
Kale caught her watching him and she looked quickly away, becoming aware for the first time that she was actually afraid of those eyes . . . almost intimidated by them. You’re letting your imagination run away with itself, Nance, she told herself without conviction.
‘Oi, you!’ she shouted with a voice as hard as her face at the old man in the corner. A Cockney voice, a long way from home. ‘You’ve ’ad yer coffee. Now clear aht!’
The old man looked up with resignation. He had learned to accept such things. You grew used to them, as you grew used to the constant gnawing pain of an ulcer. He pushed back his chair, rising slowly with what might have been an attempt at dignity, and shuffled past the counter and out into the wet. Nance had only done it to take her mind off Kale, but now she realized her folly. She had left herself alone with him. She stubbed out her half-smoked cigarette and lit another between thin, painted lips, crossed to the jukebox and punched two plays. The noise would make her feel more secure, and still she wished she could have called the old man back.
But she need not have worried, for Kale had barely noticed his going, and was only mildly irritated when the jukebox began belting out a scratchy hit record. And Nance was of no interest to him. He was thinking about his meeting with Swinton in a dingy London tearoom three days earlier.
Swinton was a small, fat, busy man. He had sat across a wooden table from Kale. One of those people who perspire constantly.
‘It’s a big one, Kale,’ he had said with an air of confidentiality, leaning across the table and breathing garlic at the other man. ‘Big money this time. You could retire. Where you been anyway? The boys was thinking you was maybe dead or something. The word’s been out for over a week.’
Kale had felt uncomfortable there, surrounded by elderly ladies drinking tea from china cups. But Swinton had insisted they should not meet at the usual pub. ‘How much and who’s paying?’
Swinton’s smile widened. ‘Oh, come on, Willy boy. You know me. Even if I knew I wouldn’t tell you who. But truth is, this time I don’t even know myself.’ He paused and sat back as a waitress scurried by with a pile of empty cups and saucers clinking on a tray, and then leaned forward again. ‘It’s not the usual form. You’ll deal direct. I’ll get my commission for finding you, but honest to God I don’t know who’s paying.’
‘A hundred thousand smackers, Kale. A hundred thousand! Jesus, I’d do it myself for a quarter of that, but I’m not in your class. No one’s in your class, mate.’
Kale toyed with his cup, the undrunk tea cold now, milk solids forming a scum on the surface. He was not happy. If he had not needed the money . . .
Nance was relieved when Kale pulled up his collar and pushed back his chair. She watched him out the door then crossed to his table to collect the empty cup and found twenty pence under the saucer. Funny, she thought, how some of them never lose the habit. Maybe he wasn’t as bad as he seemed.
Kale crossed the railway yard, asphalt crunching under his feet, the January rain stinging his face. The locomotive had shunted three coal trucks into a siding and was chugging back towards the depot. Ahead of him this small industrial township rose up the hillside, a jumble of blackened brick terraces. The tall chimneys of the mills belched smoke into a heavily laden sky away to his right, and he could hear children playing somewhere behind a wall that ran alongside the road down to the station. The cobbled street shone in the wet, reflecting the grim poverty of the place. On the station wall a fly-blown poster urged a vote for Labour, its red vivid against the grey, a smile on the candidate’s face above the slogan – FOR A BETTER BRITAIN.
He crossed Church Street to the newsagent’s on the corner and stood looking out across the town square with its black memorial statue, hands sunk deep in the pockets of his coat. For three days he had come to this spot every morning and every afternoon, checking all the routes that led to and from the square. He knew this town now as well as anyone could who had walked every street. Each road leading out of it was marked in red on the map in his pocket, each identifiable by some feature that could not be seen, but might be felt or heard. He had been relentless and thorough, and yet he was still far from satisfied. He shuffled uneasily and watched the traffic carefully. Three days, he told himself, was not enough. The clock on the church tower showed three but did not chime. The minutes ticked past slowly and the rain stopped, leaving only the chill wind to sweep across the square.
He saw the van come in from the north side and watched it as it drove past him, along the top end and back round again. This time it stopped, a white Ford Transit. Kale saw the fresh mud splashed along the side from the front wheels, and took a mental note of the registration, though he doubted if that would prove useful. Still, every scrap of information might help. A slight smile curled his lip. Others would not have gone to such lengths.
A short, thickset man stepped from the van, his crop of white, wiry hair catching in the wind above a brown leathery face. He wore a heavy tweed coat and was not what Kale had been expecting. His blue eyes incongruously honest.
‘Kale?’ he said. Kale nodded. ‘Into the back of the van then, lad.’ He rounded the van and opened the doors for Kale to climb in. ‘Here, stick this over your head. And don’t think you can whip it off when we get moving. I’ll be watching you in the mirror.’
Kale pulled the black cotton hood over his head and squatted down on a rug on the floor as the driver shut the doors. There were dog hairs on the rug and there had been fresh mud on the man’s brogues. Despite the good coat and shoes, his hands were those of a working man. Heavy, hard-skinned, calloused hands. His accent was northern, and he had a weathered outdoor air about him, uncomfortable in his expensive city gear. Kale adjusted his senses to the darkness, pressing his back up against the side of the van. He smelled dog and stale cigarette smoke.
They seemed to have been driving around the town for an eternity. Several times Kale had lost his bearings, but always he picked up their position again. The hoot of a train as it approached the station, the steep cobbled climb up Cotton Street, the quarter-hour chime of the church clock on the edge of the new housing estate – the only chiming clock in the town. They were leaving the town now, he was certain. The roundabout on the north side with roads leading north and west. The sound of a pneumatic drill, and a slight delay at temporary traffic lights erected for roadworks. They had taken the A road west. It was a road Kale had checked on his first day.
The driver stuck to the A road for what must have been nearly twenty minutes. That would take the time to around three forty. Kale would check the time when they stopped. Another seven or eight minutes perhaps, and then the van turned off the main road. Kale heard the click, click of the indicator before they slowed to take the corner, tight, the driver forced to crunch into first gear. It would be a narrow road, maybe a farm track. The van bounced and clattered over the uneven surface. Kale heard the splash of mud along the side. Then they stopped, and above the idling engine Kale could hear a man’s voice and the sound of hooves, the lowing of cattle. He strained to catch more. The scraping of a wooden gate, again a man’s voice calling, cattle retreating, and they were moving again, very slowly. Up a sharp incline and then suddenly down. A bridge? Over water? Yes, he could hear the water. The driver had rolled down the window. And now they were picking up speed, the surface a little better, the swish, swish, swish of fence posts or perhaps trees along the route. Slowing again, the clatter of a cattle grid, and then the crunch of gravel beneath the tyres. They stopped. The driver cut the ignition and climbed out.
‘Just keep yer hood on, lad.’ The back doors opened and Kale felt the working man’s hands help him out. Even in his enclosed darkness he could sense the presence of trees and a building. Stone. Something big, impressive. Up steps and into a hall, a great sense of space around them. A flagstone floor, or tiles maybe. The man with the white hair and the big rough hands felt the tension in Kale’s arm. ‘Okay, lad. Take it easy.’ Kale was surprised by the odd friendliness of the voice, its inappropriate innocence. This man could know nothing of what Kale was about. It’s strange, he thought, how much a voice can tell you about a man when you cannot see his face. ‘In ’ere.’ The big hands guided him across the hall and through a doorway. ‘You can take yer hood off when I’ve shut the door. There’s a bell press below the light switch when you’re ready to go.’ The door closed, the key turned in the lock, and the sound of the man’s heavy tread receded across the hall.
Kale removed the hood and screwed up his eyes against the sudden glare of electric light. It took nearly half a minute for his eyes to adjust fully. He checked his watch. It was just after four. Then he looked around. This was a small room. No windows, no fireplace, cream-painted walls, bare floorboards. A smell of dust and age. Perhaps a storeroom. But there were no clues, the room completely bare save for a wooden bench against the far wall. Kale’s eyes fixed on the bench. Towards one end of it lay a briefcase, a heavy black phone placed beside it. He was startled by the sudden loud ring of the phone – a short, single ring. He crossed the room and lifted the receiver, checking the dial as he sat. It was not an outside line, but an internal phone with only an extension number. Four.
‘Kale?’ a voice rasped in his ear.
‘Good. Now understand this . . .’ The voice seemed without particular accent, but it was an educated voice, mature. Even from the five words Kale had heard he detected a quality of confidence. A man used to speaking, a man used to having others listen. ‘You and I are the only ones who will ever know the purpose of this meeting. You do not know who I am and so it shall remain. I know very little about you except for your reputation.’ The voice paused. Kale let the silence drag out and became aware for the first time that he was cold in this empty room. Then the voice was there again, insistent, demanding his attention.
‘In the briefcase you will find fifty thousand pounds in cash, the first half of your fee. On top of it you will find a folder containing two photographs marked A and B.’
Kale switched the phone to his other ear and opened the briefcase. The money was there beneath the folder in bundles of £100 notes, but he did not count them. He lifted the folder and opened it to take out the photographs and lay them side by side on the bench.
‘Listen carefully to what I tell you because you will receive nothing in writing and you may not take the photographs with you. If you wish me to repeat anything, ask.’
‘Hold on.’ Kale took out a small, dog-eared notebook and a biro pen. ‘Okay.’
‘Photograph A is Robert Gryffe. He is a Minister of State at the Foreign Office.’ Kale had recognized the face but been unable to place it. So, political assassination. It meant nothing to him. ‘Gryffe has special responsibilities in acting for the Foreign Minister at the European Commission of the EEC in Brussels. He is there at least one week a month, during which he stays at a terraced house he owns in the Rue de Pavie, number twenty-four. Today is Thursday. On Sunday morning Gryffe has an appointment there to meet the man pictured in photograph B. That man’s identity is of no importance to you, just so long as you remember the face. I want both men dead . . . without suspicion of murder. How you do that is your business.’ The voice paused and Kale waited.
‘You will then proceed to the Rue de Commerce, the top-floor flat in the apartment block at number thirty-three. It will be empty. There is always a key below the mat. Let yourself in and go straight to the main living room. On the fireplace wall hangs a painting by Brueghel, behind it a safe set in the wall. The combination is three, zero, five, nine, six, two. Inside you will find a black briefcase . . .’
‘Burglary ain’t my thing,’ Kale interrupted, his voice flat and cold.
The other hesitated. ‘The apartment has already been checked out by a professional. You will simply be required to collect the case and leave.’ Again the hesitation, the reluctance to answer Kale’s unasked question. Kale was only too aware of the power of his silence. ‘The case cannot not be taken before the . . . before you have fulfilled your task at the Rue de Pavie.’
‘You will take it straight to the Gare du Midi and deposit it in box thirty-nine at the left-luggage lockers. The key is taped to the inside of the lid of the briefcase beside you. If you return to the station at midday on Monday you will find a further fifty thousand pounds in cash in the same locker – assuming, of course, that you have successfully fulfilled the contract. Do you have any questions?’
‘Good. Then I shall allow you five minutes to study the photographs. Should anything occur to you in that time, dial six. Ring the bell by the door when you are ready to leave and remember to replace your hood.’
A click and the line went dead. Kale replaced the receiver. He lit a cigarette and looked at the two photographs. Gryffe would be around forty. A smooth, prosperous face. The other man was, perhaps, a few years younger. A lean, bearded face below a crop of fair, or perhaps red, hair. Two anonymous faces. Two men whom Kale would kill. There would, he knew, be no satisfaction in it, but neither would there be conscience or remorse. For Kale was the complete killer: cold, efficient, deadly. A man who showed no mercy, a quality he reserved for no one, including himself.
He sat for a while drawing slowly on his cigarette, a small shabby figure in the nakedness of the room. He would find this place again. On the map, or physically if need be. It was invariably important to know who it was that employed you to kill. And this one had taken such elaborate precautions to conceal his identity. You all think you are so clever, Kale thought. But in the end I have always got you, one way or the other. He stood on the last inch of his cigarette and closed the briefcase, leaving the photographs on the bench. He lifted the cotton hood, and his money. Then crossed to the door and rang the bell.
It was raining. Not a particularly auspicious day. It had rained yesterday and it would probably rain tomorrow.
Bannerman remembered a cartoon he had seen once in an old Punch magazine. Two crocodiles basking in a jungle swamp, heads facing each other above the muddy waters. One of them was saying, ‘You know, I keep thinking today is Thursday.’ Bannerman smiled. It had amused him then, as it amused him now. What bloody difference did it make . . . today, tomorrow, yesterday, Thursday? It was ironic that later he would look back on this day as the day it all began. The day after which nothing would ever be quite the same again.
But at the moment, so far as Bannerman knew, it was just a day like any other. He gazed reflectively from the window a while longer, out across Princes Street, the gardens beyond, and the Castle brooding darkly atop the rain-blackened cliffs. Even when it rained Edinburgh was a beautiful city. Against all odds it had retained its essential character in the face of centuries of change. There was something almost medieval about it; in the crooked hidden alleyways, the cobbled closes, the tall leaning tenements. And, of course, the formidable shape of the Castle itself, stark and powerful against the skyline.
In the office the day had barely begun. Reporters sat around reading the morning papers, sipping black coffees and nursing hangovers.
Bannerman turned from the window in time to see George Gorman drifting past. ‘Morning,’ he called after him, and watched the retreating figure as he headed for the news desk. Bannerman felt some sympathy for his news editor. Gorman was a dapper little man, good at his job without being inspired, nervous under pressure. A nice man, just waiting for the axe to fall.
It had already fallen on a number of his colleagues: John Thompson in features, Alex McGregor in sport. And there had been casualties in the reshuffle on the subs desk. It had been inevitable really, ever since it was announced that Wilson Tait was being brought up from London to fill the recently vacated editor’s chair.
The Edinburgh Post had never been able to boast a particularly high circulation. For years it had lived off its reputation as a serious newspaper of quality and reliability. It was read by politicians, members of the legal and medical professions, teachers, academics. But their patronage alone was no longer enough to balance the books. Profit was more important than prestige. Hence the appointment of Tait, a hard newspaperman of the old school; a Fleet Street-toughened Scot returning to his old hunting grounds and bringing with him his personal hard core of hatchet men whom he was moving into key editorial positions. Blood was being spilled. And only the approaching general election – just three weeks away – had provided a stay of execution for Gorman. When it was over, he would receive a quick sideways promotion to make way for one of Tait’s rising stars. And while Gorman was allowed to vegetate quietly in some out-of-the-way office with an ambiguous brief from the editor, the paper would move slowly but surely downmarket, where it would endeavour to pick up new readers, almost certainly alienating its existing readership in the process.
It was then, Bannerman thought, that he would have to consider his own future with the paper. Though that was already in doubt. He and Tait had clashed almost immediately over Bannerman’s role with the Post. And there was no love lost between them.
The phone rang on Bannerman’s desk. ‘Bannerman.’
‘Good morning, Neil. You’re in early.’
Bannerman smiled. ‘What is it, Alison?’
‘The editor wants you.’
‘You mean he’s in early, too?’
‘I’ll be right there.’
Alison smiled up at him when he came into her office. ‘Set your alarm an hour early by mistake?’
Bannerman grinned. She was a good-looking girl, easygoing but very efficient. ‘Actually I came in early to ask you if you might be free tonight.’
‘Oh, that’s nice. I am actually. But you’re not.’
Bannerman frowned. ‘Oh? You know something I don’t?’
‘Only that you’ll be too busy packing. I’ve just booked you on the first flight to Brussels in the morning.’ She nodded towards the editor’s door. ‘Orders from His Imperial Highness.’
She watched him go through into Tait’s office and wondered what it was that was so attractive about him.
Tait was hunched over his desk in shirtsleeves. He glanced up momentarily from his paperwork as Bannerman knocked and came in. ‘Take a seat. I’ll be with you in a moment.’
Bannerman sat down and watched the other man patiently. Tait liked to make you feel that he was seeing you on sufferance, that you were interrupting much more important matters. Bannerman was not impressed.
The editor was a small man and had the arrogance and puffed-up sense of self-importance of many small men. A compensation for lack of height. He was of indeterminate age and could have been anything between forty and sixty. His hair was steely grey, cut short above a squat, ugly face.
He gathered together several printed sheets and slipped them into a folder before looking up again. He surveyed his investigative reporter with caution. He disliked him, but was also intimidated by him. By his calm, powerful presence, his obvious self-confidence. Bannerman didn’t jump, as the others did, on Tait’s command. And that annoyed him.
‘I’m sending you to Brussels for a few weeks,’ he said.
‘Oh?’ Bannerman endeavoured to show no surprise.
‘We need some good stuff on the EEC in the couple of weeks after the election. Corruption, fraud, political back-stabbing, that kind of thing. Particularly when Common Market issues have been given such high priority in the election speeches of the major parties.’
Bannerman gazed at him thoughtfully. ‘Why so keen to get me out of the way?’
Tait leaned back in his seat and eyed Bannerman coldly. ‘Because I need time to consider what I’m going to do with you. You’re a troublesome bastard, Bannerman. A one-man band. I want to build a team here and there’s no room for buskers.’
Bannerman pursed his lips thoughtfully and Tait watched him with apprehension. Bannerman wasn’t tall, perhaps five feet nine or ten, but he was stocky, broad, and gave the impression of a bigger man. Tait knew from personnel records that he was thirty-five, but it would have been difficult to judge had he not known. He could have been younger, or older. Dark, wiry hair without a trace of grey fell carelessly across his forehead. He was not what Tait would have thought of as good-looking, but he had a certain presence, and there was something compelling in the gaze of his hard blue eyes.
Bannerman said, ‘Maybe you would rather I got a job somewhere else, Mr Tait.’ His voice was flat, toneless.
Tait grinned maliciously. ‘Trouble is, Bannerman, you’re too good just to ditch. Probably the best investigative journalist in Scotland right now, and very highly regarded south of the border. I’d like to keep you. But on my terms.’
‘I’m flattered. Maybe I should be asking for a rise.’
Tait laughed. ‘Cheeky bastard!’
Bannerman tilted his head. ‘So long as we both know where we stand.’ And he knew that he was going to have to think about his future sooner than expected.
A blinding whiteness lay below like an Arctic landscape. The sky above it a clear, deep blue, sunlight flashing on the windows of the jet as it swung east. Bannerman sipped his coffee and felt the plane begin its long descent. Somewhere below would be the Belgian coastline. They would be in Brussels in under twenty minutes. He checked the time. Almost ten-thirty, Friday morning. They would lose an hour flying into Central European time. He turned his watch on sixty minutes.
The two seats beside him were occupied by an elderly American couple, he a minor cog in the wheels of NATO, and she a vigorous, unselfconscious woman who seemed well used to speaking for them both.
‘Henry Schumacher.’ The American had reached across his wife to shake Bannerman’s hand when they first sat down, his fat amiable face broadening into a grin. ‘And my wife Laura-Lee.’
Bannerman had taken the proffered hand reluctantly. ‘Neil Bannerman.’
Laura-Lee had then begun a monologue, peppered with frequent questions which she never allowed Bannerman the time to answer. The Schumachers’ dreary, early married life in Chicago, the unconvincing and undistinguished rise of Henry Schumacher in American politics. The move to Washington, the invitation to a White House social gathering and the firm handshake of the President. ‘The proudest moment of our lives. A great man, Mr Bannerman, a great man.’ Then the attachment to NATO and the now frequent trips to Brussels. ‘A damned unfriendly place, Mr Bannerman, unless you know the right people.’
Bannerman had listened with a patience that gradually wore thin. The Schumachers’ bluff harmlessness and good intent, the man’s smiling adoration for his wife, his wife’s misplaced belief in her husband’s importance. They sketched themselves into Bannerman’s consciousness like caricatures, their obvious sincerity being their only saving grac. . .
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