Unsafe Convictions, page 17
‘Do you have their names? Their addresses?’
Reluctantly, Linda nodded.
‘Speak for the tape, please, Mrs Newton.’
‘I know who they are and where they live!’
‘Did you share this information with Inspector Dugdale?’
‘Because if you had,’ McKenna said, his eyes as flinty as his voice, ‘suspicion might well have fallen on someone other than your former brother-in-law.’
‘Trisha never met them,’ Linda insisted. ‘She wouldn’t even write back, or ring up.’
‘You can’t know that, Mrs Newton. You wilfully suppressed evidence vital to a murder investigation.’
‘I’m not burdened with much of an imagination,’ Ellen commented, ‘but by the time Linda finished, I felt almost inside Trisha’s skin. What really got to me wasn’t Trisha’s nightmares, but the ones she had during the day, when she was ironing, or cooking, or just watching TV. She’d suddenly start shuddering, apparently, and be fighting for her breath within seconds.’
‘Smith haunts people.’ McKenna rooted on his desk for cigarettes. ‘He worms into their brains like a parasite, and they can’t get rid of him.’ Reaching for his lighter, he added: ‘When she refers to him, Linda spits out the words as if they’re choking her.’
‘She’s more likely to choke on her own mischief,’ Jack said. ‘What on earth possessed her to keep quiet about those letters?’
‘She didn’t want Dugdale’s attention diverted.’
‘Well, if we go after the poor saps who replied to Trisha’s lonely hearts ads, we’re technically reopening the murder investigation,’ Jack pointed out. ‘That’s not our remit. Shouldn’t you take advice from the chief constable first?’
‘He’ll be asked to arrange for the Haughton police to detain the local man, and to liaise with Manchester police about the other one. We’ll sit in on the interviews.’
‘Fair enough,’ agreed Jack. ‘Are you going to inform Hinchcliffe? Dugdale has a right to know about Linda’s shenanigans.’
‘So do Bowden and Lewis,’ McKenna said, ‘but as far as we know, they’re currently unrepresented, and I’m not willing to offer information to one party and not to another.’ He tapped the ash from his cigarette. ‘So, while I’m out interviewing Broadbent, you can, on my behalf, warn the Federation that I regard the needless confusion about alternative representation for those two as an attempt to subvert my investigation.’
Wednesday, 3rd February
Between nine o’clock that morning, and eleven thirty, Wendy Lewis telephoned Frances Pawsley’s office fourteen times and, on each occasion, was asked to hold the line, while the same few bars of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik tinkled in her ears. When Frances remained ‘not available’, at eleven forty, and after emptying a pack of cigarettes newly opened when she woke, Wendy contacted the Federation, begging for their intervention. She argued for thirteen minutes, demanding representation by Frances or no one, but learned only that her options were reduced to zero. She smoked another cigarette, and once more telephoned Frances’s office, now to be told that Frances was in court for the rest of the day, and had not left any message.
At twelve twenty-seven she threw the stub of another cigarette into the sitting-room grate, took an unopened bottle of gin from the sideboard, and walked along the corridor to the bathroom, where she slid open the door of the medicine chest and debated which of her mother’s old pills to mix into a cocktail. Brown plastic pill bottles in one hand, tooth glass and bottle clutched in the other, she went to her bedroom, put bottles, glass and gin on her night table, picked up the telephone extension, and gave the minions in Frances’s office a message which no one could ignore.
Smugly pleased to have discovered an option unconsidered by the Federation, she peered at faded chemist’s labels, shook out pills from this bottle and that, topped up the glass with gin, and swirled the cloudy mess with a yellow biro. White grains and scummy colours stuck to the side of the glass, and, irritated, she watched undissolved powder quickly settle to the bottom. Giving the mixture one more vicious stir, she downed the draught in one swallow. It tasted quite vile, and left sticky powders coating her teeth, so she returned to the bathroom, scrabbling along the wall in case she was suddenly enfeebled by the drugs, rinsed her mouth with copious amounts of running water and, despite the dire warnings of her dead mother, also drank from the bathroom tap. Staggering back to the bedroom, she lay atop the quilt with her arms behind her head, watching the bedside clock tick through the minutes she had allowed for her message to reach Frances, and for Frances, panic-stricken, to respond.
At one twelve, she fell into unconsciousness without any awareness of the event, and her body began to chill by the minute.
Mineral water brimming in a lead crystal tumbler in one hand, mobile telephone in the other, Gaynor stood at the window of what was once a hunting lodge owned by the Duke of Norfolk, and was now an exclusive hotel. In the drive below, her own expensive car was parked with others of its kind.
‘It’s a try-on,’ she assured her editor. ‘Linda Newton can’t do anything because she can’t prove she wasn’t molested.’
‘We can’t prove she was,’ Davidson argued. ‘You’ve only got that con’s word.’
‘She can’t afford a libel trial.’
‘The lawyers might offer no win, no fee.’
‘For libel? They’d have to be out of their minds!’
‘Newton’s solicitor reckons they can prove the dead sister wasn’t molested, either.’
‘They can prove she was the Virgin Mary for all I care. She’s dead, and you can’t defame the dead.’
‘But it’d add weight to Newton’s claims.’ Davidson paused. ‘And what about this business with Smith’s mother?’
‘What about it? The coppers couldn’t find her before the trial, and we had no cause to think she wasn’t six feet under. We published in good faith.’
‘You think of every angle, don’t you?’
‘That’s what you pay me for. How are the sales figures?’
‘They rocketed yesterday, and today’s should be better still. You really whetted Joe Public’s appetite.’
‘More fool Joe Public.’
‘What’s the matter, Gaynor?’ Davidson’s voice had a spiteful edge. ‘Is Mr Smith not quite what you thought?’
‘He makes even my flesh crawl, so use your imagination. And his wife’s an utter moron. While she thinks she’s embroiled in the romance of the century, he’s sneering behind her back.’
‘Well, they’ve made their own bed. I take it you’re going to Sheffield to see Bunty Smith?’
‘Keep me informed. Have the police been after you again?’
‘No. I’ve already said “sorry”.’ She watched two figures trudging along the crest of the moors, perhaps a farmer and his dog searching for stragglers among the lambing ewes, to bring them to lower ground before the suffocating snows began to fall. Both man and animal were little more than faint smudges against the sombre sky. ‘And I hope you gave our lawyers a rocket. It’s their job to vet copy for things that need to be checked, not mine. I just write the stuff.’ Wandering over to the desk, she put down her glass and reached for a sheet of crested notepaper. ‘What’s Bunty Smith’s address?’
‘Seventy-seven Primrose Walk. Sheridan lives at seventy-one, and if the coppers could write their ones and sevens properly, there wouldn’t have been a mistake in the first place.’
‘The beastly Bunty could be overjoyed to get right of reply, you know. How much can I offer?’
‘Not enough to make her think we’ve got a guilty conscience. I don’t want that Sheridan harpy on our backs for hush money.’
Gaynor laughed. ‘I’d worry
‘Never underestimate Joe Public,’ Davidson counselled. ‘We’re not always the only ones with aces up our sleeves. And maybe giving Bunty Smith’s address to the police would be a useful quid pro quo. After you’ve talked to her, of course.’
‘Why should I?’ she demanded. ‘It’s not my fault they were too lazy to look for her properly.’
‘Very Dickensian,’ Ellen said, looking up at the dour façade of the Willows as McKenna’s car drew to a halt in the flagged courtyard. ‘These Victorian mansions always seem to end up as institutions, but I suppose they’re obsolete otherwise in this day and age.’
‘So they’re ideal for housing people who lack the sensibilities the rest of us enjoy, aren’t they?’ Janet asked acidly. ‘Like mental defectives.’
‘ “People with learning difficulties” is the correct terminology.’ Helping Ellen to unload her machines, McKenna saw the almost bitter light in Janet’s eyes, but said no more, because there was nothing more to say. Tape-recorder in his arms, he followed her up the steps and into a hall of baronial proportions, where a massively carved staircase rose heavenwards, and the great leaded windows were inset with crests. A tall, very thin man wearing half-moon spectacles waited for them, snapping his heels on the parquet floor.
‘I’m Cyril Bennett, the manager.’ He frowned. ‘Julie said you’re investigating this alleged miscarriage of justice. Is she in some kind of trouble over it?’
‘I can’t comment,’ McKenna replied.
‘You see, if someone’s under police investigation, we’re supposed to suspend them pending the outcome.’
‘Our business with Miss Broadbent is not connected with her work. She’s one of a number of people we’re interviewing.’
Bennett persisted. ‘The police were in and out of here for weeks on end after that poor woman died, and I’d have thought anything Julie had to say was said at the time.’
‘Our frames of reference are quite different.’
‘Has the management committee given you permission to come here?’
‘No,’ McKenna said patiently. ‘To be frank, we’re not obliged to ask, but if you object to our seeing Miss Broadbent on the premises, we’ll make other arrangements. And if anything should crop up relevant to Miss Broadbent’s suitability as an employee, rest assured you’ll be the first to know.’
Gaynor cruised twice past the tenement block which housed Primrose Walk on its middle level, Bluebell Way at ground level, and Daffodil Close up in the sky, before accelerating away towards a secure city centre car-park. She took a taxi back, extracting a receipt from the driver, then made her way up the filthy concrete staircase which linked the three levels of two-storey maisonettes. The walls were daubed with graffiti, some obscene, some merely inane, and stained with the urine of which the whole area stank. Poking out from the rubbish kicked into a corner at the turn of the stairs, she noticed a syringe and shreds of silver foil, and here and there on the surface of the walls, the pock-marked ulceration of concrete cancer. She reached Primrose Walk panting with the effort of holding her breath against the tide of smells.
The bitter wind swirling about her was dirty with stale exhaust fumes and city pollution, and she was briefly overwhelmed by the terrible thought that anyone, even herself, could end their days in a benighted slum such as this. Glancing as she walked at the plastic numbers screwed to the doors, she found number seventy-seven, and rapped sharply on the glass.
A fat old woman dragged open the door. ‘Fancy someone your age getting puffed walking up a few stairs,’ she observed, eyeing Gaynor up and down. ‘Wasn’t the lift working? It was yesterday.’
‘Are you Bunty Smith?’ Gaynor asked.
‘Who wants to know?’
‘I’m Gaynor Holbrook.’
‘Are you really? You’d better come in, then.’ Following her into a meanly proportioned, meagrely furnished, and fuggily overheated shoe box of a room, Gaynor saw another old woman standing by a big electric fire, hopping from one foot to another.
‘That there’s Bunty Smith,’ she was told. ‘I’m Ida Sheridan, the one that phoned.’
Ignoring Ida then, and summoning an expansive smile, Gaynor rushed forward, hand outstretched. ‘Mrs Smith! I’m delighted to meet you!’
‘Are you?’ A frail, claw-like hand brushed hers. ‘Why’s that?’
‘I’ve heard so much about you, of course!’
Ida snorted. ‘That’s one way of putting it!’ She circled Gaynor like a dog around a sheep, edging her towards a chair already pulled out from under the small table by the window. ‘Sit down, Ms Holbrook, and get your purse and cheque-book out. We’ve got terms to talk, haven’t we?’
Julie’s flat, created out of the old attic nurseries at the rear of the house, consisted of a bedroom, a sitting-room, a tiny bathroom and WC, and a kitchenette, all with dormer windows, their protective bars still in place, that looked vertiginously on to the rear yard and what remained of the grounds. There was not a willow tree in sight, nor a member of staff, McKenna thought, watching a small group of outlandishly dressed residents hack their way with axes through a thicket of dead trees and shrubs. Two supermarket trolleys were parked on the yard’s mossy flagstones, waiting to be filled with twigs and broken branches.
Turning to take his seat, he looked down on the back of Julie’s head, and thought the back of her neck, with its translucent skin and tendrils of curly brown hair, was perhaps the most tender and lovely thing he had ever seen, inviting his protection, and even his caress.
‘What happens to the wood they collect?’ he asked her. She wore jeans and a sweater and, perched on an old-fashioned dining-chair, her arms loosely folded, stared gravely at him, evoking in him the ghost of Colin Bowden’s brief enchantment, and what had, years before, beguiled Dugdale into a rashness he now had cause to regret.
‘They make bundles of firewood. Several local shops have a regular order.’
‘What about other work?’ Ellen asked. ‘Firewood’s only seasonal.’
‘The paper mill sends waste to be weighed and packed, and we occasionally get odd jobs from other factories,’ Julie replied. ‘Work’s hard enough to come by for normal people, so we take what’s offered.’ Impatiently, she added: ‘Can we start? I’m on duty later.’
‘We should wait for your solicitor to arrive,’ McKenna said.
‘No one’s coming.’
‘You were advised to have representation,’ he pointed out. ‘This interview will be under caution.’
‘I know.’ Today, she thought, he resembled a clever fox, whereas when she saw him on Monday, trying to escape from the lane by Trisha’s house, he looked like one pursued by the hounds of hell. The woman with the machinery was like a mouse, scrabbling in the skirting boards for electrical sockets instead of crumbs, and the other woman, painfully thin and gauntly dark, was, to Julie, simply kindred wounded.
‘You’re entitled to free legal representation in such circumstances,’ McKenna added.
‘I know. I don’t want anyone.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m quite sure! I only work with retarded people.’ She fidgeted when he began the caution. ‘I know the procedure. You’ve no doubt heard.’
‘That’s one of the issues I want to discuss,’ McKenna said. ‘It’s possible that your previous experiences made you less than forthcoming during the investigation of Trisha Smith’s death. It’s been suggested you were “holding back”.’
‘Who said? Wendy Lewis?’
‘I’m not at liberty to comment.’
‘It must have been her. The man she brought with her never opened his mouth, but she was like a dog with a bone. She really upset some of the residents.’
‘She kept insisting they’d seen something. She put them under a lot of pressure.’
‘Some of them may well hav
‘They may,’ Julie conceded, ‘but you’d need someone with much better skills than Lewis to find out.
‘Has Cyril Bennett said anything to you?’ she asked suddenly.
‘Why d’you ask?’ Her eyes were truly remarkable, he thought.
After a small silence, she said: ‘Unless you intend to waste your time and mine, stop treating me like something that got on your shoe. Lewis looked so far down her nose at me she must have gone cross-eyed. Bennett’s already muttering about suspension, and whatever you might think to the contrary, even somebody like me has rights.’
‘No one’s denying your rights, Miss Broadbent.’
‘He just needs setting straight. He’s not a bully, and he’s not unfair, but he’s scared he’ll be accused of taking risks with resident welfare, because that’s how it looks when the police start cautioning the staff.’
‘I’ve already told him this interview has no connection with your work, but that’s the only assurance I can give at present,’ McKenna said. ‘I’m here to discuss Barry Dugdale.’
Her smile was incredibly sweet. ‘You are wasting your time.’
‘You were close once.’
‘Almost twenty years ago. Did Ryman snitch on us?’ When he failed to respond, she sighed. ‘I know. You can’t comment.’
‘What was your relationship with Trisha Smith?’ Janet asked.
‘I knew her.’
Julie crossed her legs, easing the creased denim around her knee, while Janet, compelled to assess the length and symmetry of the legs, asked herself why someone of such mongrel ancestry should be blessed with such aristocratic proportions. Surreptitiously, she peered at the small areas of exposed flesh for signs of the blistering injury it had suffered, but saw nothing. ‘How well did you know her?’ she added.
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