Unsafe Convictions, page 24
Snow flurries gusted down from Bleak Moor, sticking to the windscreen and gathering in small drifts here and there. She flicked the wipers, then as the lights changed, surged up the road towards Beryl’s house beneath the long, undulating edge of the moor. Absent-mindedly asking herself why she regarded the house, its contents, the servants and the money as only Beryl’s, she realised how little investment Smith made in his environment. He took from it to the point of draining its life-blood, and returned nothing.
The tall gates stood wide open and, parking outside the front door, she glimpsed Beryl’s car, with its self-conscious number-plate and brand-new tyres, in the huge garage. The gardener-handyman, whom Smith insisted on calling a ‘groundsman’, was nowhere to be seen, but a wheelbarrow filled with various tools had been left in the middle of the drive.
She closed the car door quietly, and tiptoed over the gravel, her journalist’s nose twitching like an animal’s. The place was too quiet, overhung with an atmosphere darker than the sombre snow clouds above Bleak Moor and, as she stepped on to the wide semicircular doorstep, she held her breath. Unable to distinguish a word of the altercation inside, she put her finger to the bell.
At the third summons, the housekeeper opened the door, looked her over from head to foot, then said: ‘I don’t know how you dare show your face, after all the mischief you caused.’
‘Excuse me?’ Gaynor raised her eyebrows.
‘Oh, don’t come the innocent! You know what I’m on about.’
‘You’re forgetting your place, and I don’t talk to servants. I want to see your mistress.’
‘And aren’t you a hoity-toity bitch?’ The housekeeper stalked away, leaving the door open. As Gaynor shut it quietly behind her, Beryl emerged from the drawing-room.
‘Oh, it’s you.’ Her face was puffy and her eyes red, and she held a balled-up handkerchief in her hand.
‘We need to talk,’ Gaynor said, advancing towards her.
Beryl retreated, almost stumbling into the door frame. ‘It’s really not a good time. Piers is quite upset.’
Determined that he would shortly be even more upset, Gaynor almost pushed her out of the way. Smith was lounging in a fireside chair, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He stared at her unblinkingly, and she chilled from head to foot.
‘I wish I’d never set eyes on you!’ His mouth was a thin, vicious line. ‘Peddling your false fucking sympathy! D’you know what you’ve done?’ He sprang to his feet, and began to jig around the room. ‘People spat at me in the shops, and slashed the tyres on the car. I’m afraid to go out, and it’s all your fault!’ A shrill, ranting note came into his voice. ‘You’re like a fucking vulture!’
‘Piers!’ Beryl’s voice was a horrified whisper.
Ignoring his wife, he jabbed his finger in Gaynor’s face. ‘When I’ve finished with you, you’ll wish you’d never been born!’ His breath was foul.
‘I wrote what you told me.’ Gaynor tried to hold her voice steady, but her heart was pounding. ‘Too bad you couldn’t tell me the truth! You lied about your mother, you lied about Linda Newton, and you lied about Trisha. You’ve already cost me a night in the cells, not to mention my paper getting stung with a libel action.’ Enraged, she stood up to him, trying to ignore the cruel mouth and dangerous eyes. ‘You made a fool out of me!’ She jabbed her own finger. ‘And don’t you dare threaten me! You caused all the trouble.’
‘You bitch!’ he shrieked, dancing like a dervish. ‘You whore!’
‘Piers, please!’ Beryl sobbed. ‘Please, oh, please, don’t!’
Beryl snatched at his arm, but he wrenched away so violently she stumbled against a chair. Then she too turned on Gaynor. ‘Go away! Please. Just go away!’ Her eyes were wild, her breath came in little panting sobs as if her airway were obstructed.
‘I don’t think I ought to do that,’ Gaynor said. ‘Left alone with him, you’ll probably end up like your predecessor.’
Smith stopped his jigging as if turned to stone, and Gaynor braced herself for the attack. She dodged when he moved, but he simply brushed past, mouthing more obscenities. Flouncing from the room, he pounded up the stairs, slammed drawers and doors, pounded down again, and ran out through the front door, leaving it wide open.
McKenna turned right off the lower end of High Street, negotiated a grid of streets tunnel-like with the never-ending stone terraces, then made a left turn into a wide avenue. In the far distance, the station end of Dent Viaduct defined the horizon.
Cruising so slowly that the driver behind almost nudged the bumper, he looked at the numbers and names variously displayed on the gates, porches and front doors of the large mock-Tudor houses on either side. Finding the one he wanted, he stopped rather suddenly, earning a protesting blast from the other driver. ‘I should have let you take the wheel,’ he told Janet, rubbing his eyes. ‘I’m tired.’
‘I don’t understand why you went out so late last night,’ she said.
‘I rather wish I hadn’t.’ He stared bleakly through the windscreen.
‘Did something happen?’ she ventured..
‘You could say that. I think I’ve underestimated Holbrook.’
‘She’s been after you from the start, sir.’ Janet spoke almost dismissively. ‘She’d say she spotlighted us to make sure we do the job properly, but I think she’s just getting mileage for her stories. Sensational innuendo about police corruption always sells papers.’
‘I wonder where she’ll stop.’
‘There isn’t much more she can say.’
Half turning in the seat, he looked at her. ‘She’s very bright and completely hard-faced. Additionally, and as she freely admitted, she seems able to find out whatever she wants.’
‘You’re half inviting me to ask what she’s discovered about you,’ Janet replied. ‘But I’m not sure you’d want me to know.’
‘If she publishes, the world and his wife will know, and her inventive turn of mind would skew the facts to imply something quite divorced from the truth.’ He sighed. ‘Never mind. There must be worse things than being grist to Holbrook’s mill, and at least, I’m not alone in that.’
Unsure what she would do with this uncharacteristic intimacy if it continued, Janet merely said: ‘She doesn’t seem to know about Julie’s involvement with Dugdale. And so far, she’s left father-one-foot-on-the-ground-and-the-other-in-heaven Fauvel alone.’
‘Give her time. She’s already niggling about Ryman.’ He opened the car door.
‘He had scratches on his wrist,’ Janet added, as they went towards the house.
‘Fauvel, and he glared at me when he saw I’d noticed.’
The girl who once harboured a passion for Father Fauvel, and whose parents lived in the timbered and plastered house, was away at university. Her mother, startled to find two police officers on her doorstep, reddened with embarrassment when she heard the reason for their visit.
‘Oh, dear! Fancy that silly episode coming back to haunt.’ She offered a tentative smile. ‘Brenda will be mortified!’
‘Perhaps you could help us,’ McKenna suggested. ‘We might not need to bother her.’
‘Well, it was all a to-do about nothing. I mean, they didn’t do anything, except hang about the presbytery after school. Silly young things, weren’t they?’
‘Why were they doing that?’
She sighed. ‘There was a film on TV about a priest in Australia who falls in love with this girl. It put all sorts of romantic nonsense in their heads.’
‘The Thorn Birds,’ Janet said.
‘That’s it! I suppose they got carried away because Father Brett looks so like the actor who played the priest that people teased him about it.’
‘Did Brenda ever tell you what went on at the presbytery?’ asked McKenna.
‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘Did she comment about something she might have seen or heard?
The woman frowned. ‘Well, no. She couldn’t see what wasn’t there, could she?’
On the other side of town, on a run-down council estate a world away from mock-Tudor gentility, Jack and Ellen ran to earth the girl who had shared in Brenda’s puppy love but not her bright prospects. Unemployed and, like so many of her kind, almost unemployable, Pauline Flynn was at home, getting under her mother’s feet.
‘Turn that TV down! Now!’ Mrs Flynn yelled, standing in the doorway of her uninspiring front room. ‘I can’t hear myself think, never mind talk.’
Reaching for the remote control, Pauline pointed it at the huge screen and crushed a button under her fingertip. ‘There!’ she announced, as silence invaded. ‘So quit nagging!’
‘There’s police here with some questions, so mind that mouth of yours.’
‘What about?’ Alarmed, Pauline leaped to her feet, eyes wide.
‘Not that waste of space you call a boyfriend,’ Mrs Flynn snapped. ‘More’s the pity.’ She turned to Jack. ‘She’s running with a bad crowd, but does she listen to me? Does she heck!’ Still muttering, she shifted a pile of magazines and knitting from the settee to the floor, and invited them to sit down.
‘It’s about when you and Brenda were at school,’ Ellen said. ‘You know, when you were hanging round the presbytery after school.’
‘Oh, no!’ Pauline collapsed back in the chair, hands over her face. ‘Not that again.’ Her wavy dark hair rippled around her shoulders.
‘I’m sorry if it embarrasses you,’ Jack said.
Dropping her hands, Pauline looked up, tossing her hair. ‘It makes me want to curl up and die!’
‘Why?’ asked Ellen.
‘Because!’ She flushed. ‘And if my boyfriend knew, he’d kill himself laughing.’
‘What’s so awful about a teenage crush?’
‘It’s him, though, isn’t it? Father Brett. He’s so creepy.’
‘Why?’ Ellen frowned. ‘Because he’s old?’
‘No,’ Mrs Flynn said, ‘because he’s creepy. I stopped Pauline going to St Michael’s. She comes with us to St Saviour’s now. He only takes services there once a month, so he hasn’t got the same clout.’
‘Why did you do that, Mrs Flynn?’ Jack’s scalp prickled with anticipation.
‘Can’t keep his hands to himself, can he? Everybody knows, only some think it’s different for someone like him. Well,’ she added, ‘I don’t, so that’s that.’
Gaynor’s imagination transformed Smith into a mythical creature that could travel magically and invisibly through thin air, and all the way along the lane from the house she expected him to appear before her, those dreadful eyes boring into hers. Reaching the main road without incident, she rebuked herself for being so silly: he had probably just hidden in the shrubbery until she left. But had Beryl not been in the room, or the housekeeper somewhere about, she was convinced he would have savaged her like a mad dog, and that visceral terror washed through her once more.
She parked behind the town hall, shivering to dislodge the fancies that clung like incubi to her shoulders, then went into one of the High Street cafes, and sat well away from the window with a mug of extra-strong tea. Smith, she knew, would not forget, and forgiveness was not a word in his vocabulary. He would add her name to the list of those who had offended his obscenely perverted self-centredness, and when she remembered what happened to such people, she spilt most of her tea on the pink gingham cloth. Chastened and frightened, and almost able to smell her own burning flesh, she thought of tapping the mercy that was said to inform McKenna’s dealings with the world.
Before she unlocked the car, she looked into the back, in case Smith was hiding behind the seat. She switched on the radio, then turned it off, in no mood for chatter or music. She wanted to flee, but knew she had to stay until the last act of this drama was played out. ‘There at the cutting edge,’ she said to herself, following the hypnotic sway of the windscreen wipers. The sudden livid glare of brake lights from the car in front catapulted her back to wakefulness.
Snow was already piling up on the roofs, and sticking on the roads and pavements, but for all that, the High Street was still thronged with shoppers, some not even wearing overcoats. Driving stop-start in the stream of traffic, she glanced at the ghostly relics of advertisements once painted on the gable ends of houses and shops: the sinister-sounding ‘Bile Beans’; the legend ‘Spratts’, decorated with flaking pictures of a dog and a cat; ‘Maconochie’s Pickles’, and the ubiquitous ‘Hovis’. Rounding the bend where the long rows of terraced houses and small shops petered out, Dent Viaduct filled the horizon, its east-facing pillars blasted with snow, the gantries and wires along the top like lines inked in the sky. Wondering how many souls had plummeted to their deaths from that enormous height, she thought what a grim place this was, its people dwarfed by these massive industrial relics, its buildings overshadowed by a wasteland of moors and bogs.
By the wrecked mill near the ruined house where Trisha Smith had died, she followed a mulberry-coloured saloon on to the road that led to Dark Moor, and the safety of her hotel. The snowy pavement was deserted except for a small hooded figure scurrying, head down, in the same direction. Lights were on behind house windows, and curtains drawn against the early twilight. The road was too narrow for Gaynor to overtake, so she cruised behind the other car, then cursed lewdly when it slewed into the kerb without indicating. The driver’s door opened as she passed, and a man jumped out. In the rear-view mirror, she saw him stride to the pavement and virtually pounce on the hooded figure.
A few yards up the road, Gaynor stopped her own car, and squinted through the globs of snow on the back window. The man kept reaching out, while the woman — for Gaynor was sure it was a woman — continually backed away, slipping and sliding on the treacherous ground. When he grabbed her arm and began to drag her towards the car, Gaynor shoved the gear-stick into reverse, rear lights blazing. He saw her coming, released the woman, leaped back into his car, and drove off at high speed. His face was a blur as he passed, and when Gaynor peered at the registration plate all she saw was another blur.
The fur-trimmed hood of the woman’s coat had fallen about her shoulders, exposing a pale, heart-shaped face, and soft curly hair. She shook herself like an animal, and was about to recommence her trudging when Gaynor called out: ‘I saw what happened. Are you OK?’
Hands in pockets, the woman barely paused. ‘Fine, thanks.’
‘Well, you look pretty shaken,’ Gaynor said. ‘Can I give you a lift? Apart from anything else, the weather’s vile.’
The woman stopped, and looked up and down the road. ‘I suppose. Thanks.’ She climbed in, the scent of icy moorland winds and damp wool about her clothes, then began to rub her arm.
‘Did he hurt you?’
She shrugged. ‘Not really.’
‘From where I was sitting, it looked pretty nasty.’ When there was no response, she added: ‘A good thing I was there, isn’t it?’
‘I suppose,’ the other repeated. Her face was turned away, denying Gaynor even the benefit of her expression.
‘Who is he?’
‘Oh, just somebody I used to know.’
‘Well, he seems to think there’s unfinished business.’
‘You can stop just up there,’ the woman said, pointing to a junction on the right.
‘Will you be all right?’ Gaynor asked. ‘I’m not very happy about leaving you alone.’ She sensed a genuine drama slipping out of her reach.
‘I live nearby. I’ll be OK.’
‘Shouldn’t you report it to the police?’ Gaynor persisted, slowing the car. ‘I saw it all. I could help.’
‘There’s no need.’ She pulled up the hood, ready to get out. ‘He’s just someone I used to know.’
Thursday, 4th February
‘At first,’ Jack began, reporting to McKenna on the visit to Pauline Flynn, ‘I thought we’d struck gold, but when we’d cut through the crap, it was all a lot of hot air.’ Warming his flanks by the gas fire, he went on: ‘Mother Flynn said Father Fauvel can’t keep his hands to himself, but that was because of what Pauline claimed he’d done, which amounted to nothing more than a priestly stroke of her hair as she was taking Holy Communion.’
‘She’s got very pretty hair,’ Ellen said. ‘Dark brown, and long and wavy.’
‘So, Fauvel was tempted, and forgot himself,’ Jack commented. ‘Then again, people often stroke kids on the head.’
‘She wasn’t a “kid”.’ Ellen sounded exasperated. ‘She was fourteen.’
‘Some priests do a lot of touching,’ McKenna said. ‘It’s part of their ritual, but it means nothing.’
‘Exactly.’ Jack looked a trifle smug. ‘Mother Flynn, and her offspring, both had to agree it meant nothing. Pauline and Brenda blew up everything out of all proportion, because of some silly adolescent thing. Pauline told Brenda that the hair-stroking was a sign of the undying love Fauvel could never declare. Brenda was beside herself with jealousy, and had a tantrum, and that’s when the trouble started.’
‘What “trouble”?’ McKenna demanded.
‘Mountains out of mole hills,’ Jack said, stifling a yawn. ‘Initially, Mother Flynn told us she’d put the brakes on Pauline’s attendance at St Michael’s, but that wasn’t true. The Flynns live in St Saviour’s parish, but Pauline started going to St Michael’s because Brenda was already smitten with Fauvel. They made such a nuisance of themselves the bishop wrote to tell Mother Flynn that Pauline had to attend St Saviour’s. He wrote to Brenda’s parents, as well.’
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