Unsafe Convictions, page 27
Estelle ran water over the eggs in the pan, and walked with extreme care towards the cooker. The pan jittered as she put it on the hob, the eggs rattled, and water splashed out over the pristine enamel. ‘Oh, God!’ she prayed, fumbling with the ignition switch. ‘Don’t let him lose his job. Please!’ Blue flame was licking around the pan and making bubbles rise in the water when she realised that her husband might not only lose his job, but go to prison.
Then the telephone rang once more. Her body jerked violently and her hands flew up, just missing the pan handle. The telephone bell stopped on the second ring.
Little sound carried through the walls of this well-built house. She had to creep into the hall to know that he was still talking. But again, he was merely listening. She crept back to the kitchen, and very, very carefully, lifted the extension from its mount.
‘ – but seeing as it’s Miss Ryman, sir, I didn’t think you’d mind us putting her through on this line, even though it’s getting late. The snow must’ve cut off the phones somewhere. She’s been trying for hours. Oh, and I told her we couldn’t do anything about the call being recorded, but she said it doesn’t matter.’
Estelle’s heart fluttered with the unexpected pleasure of speaking to a daughter who only remembered her parents’ existence when she wanted something, then with anxiety. She was about to announce herself when a stranger’s voice came on the line.
‘Mr Ryman? Is that you?’ The ugly inflections Estelle had made sure Shelley never aped thickened this woman’s voice like sludge. ‘You know who this is, don’t you?’
‘Oh, God!’ Her husband gasped.
‘You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to stop him.’
In the silence beyond the stark demands, his breath rasped in Estelle’s ears. Then he moaned: ‘Stop tormenting me! Leave me alone!’
‘I’m not tormenting you. I’m begging you to help, like I did before.’
‘You were lying!’ Estelle sensed the doubt in his voice.
‘I was telling the truth, and you knew it. You’ve always known.’ The woman paused, while Estelle held her breath until her chest hurt. ‘He’s doing it to one of the girls here.’
‘I don’t believe you!’
‘And he tried to drag me into his car today. He said he was offering a lift, but he’s lying. He’ll kill me when he gets the chance.’ Behind the melodramatic statement, Estelle sensed desperation.
‘Don’t be ridiculous! Why should he?’
‘Because you’ve already let him get away with murder.’ Her words were inexorable.
‘What d’you mean?’ Estelle marvelled at the inadequacy of his response.
‘I saw him at Trisha Smith’s house the day she died.’
‘You can’t have done!’
‘I did. I don’t know how you can sleep easy in your bed.’ There was another rasping silence, before she said: ‘You’ve got no shame, and no decency. If you don’t do something this time, I will.’
‘Are you blackmailing me?’
Even though her voice was muddy with tears, the woman actually laughed. How could she, Estelle thought? ‘I don’t go in for blackmail. I’m not like you.’
For a few seconds, Estelle listened to the void on the line, then heard the snap as her husband replaced his receiver. Eventually, she put down the extension, then turned to watch the eggs, by now bobbing in the boiling water. Mechanically, she reached for the egg-timer, turned it upside down, opened the bread bin, took out a fresh tin loaf, slid open the cutlery drawer, reached for a bread knife, then fell to her knees, fingers slipping over the smooth, rounded edge of the counter, the knife clattering to the floor.
Being near Fauvel made Julie’s skin crawl, where it was loose enough. On those parts of her body not much less disfigured by multiple grafts than by bone-deep burns, her skin was so tight that the smallest unconsidered movement could almost tear her apart. None the less, after she had settled the near-hysterical Debbie in her room, she returned eventually to the sitting-room, where her colleague fussed over the priest, still apologising endlessly.
‘I can’t think what came over her,’ the woman bleated tearfully, repeating herself once again as she placed a snifter of brandy by his side. ‘I really can’t! Oh, I’m so awfully sorry! It must have been dreadful for you.’
Fauvel held up his hands, his face pinched. ‘Please! There’s no need to upset yourself. As I said, she didn’t hurt me.’
‘But the shock!’ the woman breathed. She bit her lip anxiously. ‘Maybe she’s getting ready for a fit. She can get out of hand before a fit.’ She gazed at Julie. ‘What d’you think, Jools?’
‘She’s not due for at least a month,’ Julie replied, going back to the window seat. ‘Her fits are like clockwork.’
‘Perhaps she’s overtired, then. She was out in the snow rather a long time.’
‘Debbie’s as strong as an ox,’ Julie said, staring at Fauvel. ‘Isn’t she?’ she asked him.
‘Oh, Jools! What a nasty thing to say!’
Fauvel twitched his lips into a semblance of amusement. ‘She can certainly pack a punch, but never mind. We’ll forget it ever happened.’ He lit a cigarette.
‘We can’t do that,’ Julie went on. ‘Everything has to be reported. I’ve already put a note in the log book.’ She continued to stare at him. ‘Mr Bennett will want to investigate.’
The cigarette trembled in Fauvel’s hand. ‘I said to forget it.’
‘It’s too late now,’ Julie told him.
‘Jools!’ the other woman exclaimed, alarmed by the tension between them. ‘You shouldn’t have written anything! It’s up to Father Brett what happens.’ She smiled at the priest. ‘Don’t worry, Father. I’ll cross it out right away.’
The clatter from the kitchen failed to register in Ryman’s brain, and only when he smelled the stench of burning eggs did he move from the reproduction Hepplewhite chair beside the telephone.
For mysterious reasons of her own, Estelle was kneeling on the kitchen floor, while the eggs burned black. They exploded at the very moment he noticed them. He turned off the gas and cast around for the oven gloves, so that he could douse the pan in the kitchen sink without searing his hands. His horror of being burned far surpassed the wholly rational dread of any normal man. The ways in which heat could shear the flesh from his bones dwelled at the back of his mind, and would erupt like a flash-over at the least relevant trigger. School history lessons about martyrdom at the stake, or the enemy melted under cauldrons of boiling oil, or even King Edward’s disembowelment by red-hot poker, had left him cold. Now, if he came across words such as ‘burn’, or ‘fire’, he envisaged himself embraced by flames, and had felt Trisha Smith’s incineration as if it were his own. He did not even read the reports, let alone get near enough to the investigation to smell the fumes or feel the lingering heat, and cared not in the least whom Dugdale sent to prison as long as the matter was done with. And all, he thought, because a fourteen-year-old girl, desperate to show the measure of her own pain, had torn off her jumper, exposing a grubby white vest and her shrivelled flesh. Knowing how, if not why, she had come by the burns, he stared with almost clinical detachment, admiring the plastic surgeons for doing what they could. Then, realising how easily one of her type might wilfully misinterpret his stare, he had snapped: ‘Cover yourself up. This minute!’ She dragged the discarded jumper over her head, obscuring her face, and it was then that the horror almost blew him away like a flame-thrower, for her body was so puzzlingly lop-sided because only one swelling nipple peaked the grubby vest, instead of two. Because of her, because of that, all he had worked for was now as ashes in his throat.
When the cold water hit the wreckage in the pan, it hissed like a nest of angry vipers, throwing up great clouds of dirty steam. Estelle was still on the floor, her new pleated skirt fanned around her, the lacy edge of an underskirt snagged around
She had once had such pretty hair, he thought, smoothing the pepper-and-salt strands, but age had stolen its colour and sleekness. But she was still a good-looking woman, firm-featured and with only a slightly sagging jawline, and one any man should he proud to call his wife. She dressed well, and in keeping with her age and station, and even if the clothes were larger each passing year, she was not fat, but firmly rounded, and even stately.
‘What is it? Aren’t you well?’ He patted her hair. ‘Have you had one of your flushes?’
With unexpected suddenness she raised her arm and knocked his hand away, then began to crawl across the floor, tearing the underskirt hem.
He followed, his progress as slow and halting as hers. ‘Estelle! What on earth’s wrong?’
Reaching blindly for the edge of the sink, where the ruined pan still steamed and sizzled, she dragged herself upright. The backs of her legs were reddened with pressure, the skirt pleats creased, the torn lace hanging in shreds. Once on her feet, she leaned against the sink while she caught her breath, then, slowly, turned to face him. ‘You’ve been lying to me,’ she said accusingly.
‘No! I haven’t.’
‘You have! You’ve been lying, and covering up, and we’re going to lose everything!’
He advanced, trying to smile. ‘It’s not what you think, dear. There’s nothing to worry about.’
Her eyes blazed with a strange light. ‘Stop treating me like a fool! I heard that woman on the phone.’ She began to move willy-nilly around the kitchen. ‘You’ve been jumping like a cat on hot bricks every time the bloody thing rang. Were you expecting her to call?’ She stopped by the sink. ‘Who is she? What does she want? What does she know?’
‘I can’t say,’ he muttered.
‘Oh, but you can!’ Red-hot sweat gushed from every pore in her body, and her eyeballs steamed over. Control at last evaporating, she reached blindly for the still scorching pan, yelping as it burned her hand, and went for him.
Fauvel escaped from the Willows only after Julie’s colleague had spent a further half-hour reiterating her apologies, her worries about repercussions from Debbie’s behaviour, and her assurances that all references to it would be expunged from the home’s records. As she showed him to the door, neither of them saw Debbie, who was crouching on the landing, her hands locked around the carved balusters.
The woman watched Fauvel drive away, then went to the office to keep her promise. Julie had disappeared after that strange, tense exchange, and was probably in the laundry or the kitchen, giving in to her compulsion to wash and clean.
The log book entry filled more than half a page. She read it over, wondering if it could be doctored into something trivial. Then she realised that she could simply pull out the whole sheet, and remove its corresponding half from further on in the book. She had almost completed the enterprise when Julie walked in.
‘Your shift finished ages ago,’ Julie said. ‘You should be on your way home instead of messing with things you don’t understand.’
‘I promised Father Brett. He doesn’t want anyone to know.’ She looked up at Julie’s angry face. ‘I don’t know what got into you, I really don’t. You were horrible to him!’
‘It’s more a case of what got into Debbie.’
‘Oh, don’t he silly! Debbie’s got an IQ of seventy-five at best, and she’s epileptic. There’s no rhyme or reason in anything she does. And,’ she added, her own anger rising, ‘that’s why Father Brett doesn’t want her blamed for it. He understands she’s not responsible.’ With great deliberation, she put the two sheets of paper through the shredder, while Julie watched every movement. ‘And I hope you’ll refrain from snitching to Bennett. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt, as you’ve said yourself in the past.’
‘That depends on what he’s not being told.’
‘You’re just plain bloody-minded when you want to be!’
‘Debbie might tell him herself.’
‘Not after I’ve sorted her tomorrow she won’t.’ Checking that there were no tell-tale shreds of paper stuck between the folds, she closed the book. ‘And don’t go writing in her file as soon as my back’s turned, either,’ she warned. Then her face clouded once again. ‘Oh, I can’t get over it! I really can’t! He comes for a chat and nightcap, and that happens.’
‘You spent long enough talking to him afterwards.’
‘I could hardly send him away on a night like this while he was so upset, could I? But a fat lot you care! Father Brett thinks the world of you, and you go treating him like dirt!’
Once again, Julie watched through the office window as her colleague drove away, the car slithering across the snow with vapours puffing from the exhaust. Then it disappeared around the bend in the drive, and Julie watched the snow fall relentlessly from a black sky.
Ryman was still on his feet, swaying as he held his hand to his wounded forehead. Estelle’s hysteria at first gave way to fear, but now the anger was returning, assaulting her in equal measure. Surprised to find the blackened pan still in her hand, she put in on the counter, picked up a cloth and began methodically cleaning her sooty fingers.
‘You fool!’ Ryman snarled. ‘How am I going to explain this?’
‘Like you covered up whatever that woman was on about! You did a bloody good job there, if what I heard is anything to go by. And don’t call me a fool! You’re the fool!’ she shouted, pushing him in the chest. ‘Who is she?’ she demanded. ‘What did you do?’ She stared at him assessingly. ‘Or is it more a case of what you didn’t do?’
‘It’s none of your damned business!’
‘I’m making it my business.’ Her voice was flinty. ‘Either you tell me now, and we’ll try to sort it out, or I’ll tell the chief constable about tonight’s mysterious tape-recorded conversation, and let him sort it out.’
Almost vacantly, he stared at her, his mouth slightly agape. ‘The tapes are monitored.’
‘You mean people listen in on every call?’
‘No. They’re checked daily.’
‘I see.’ She pursed her mouth. ‘That’s a bit of a bugger, isn’t it?’
When the telephone rang well after eleven, Jack was sound asleep, and McKenna was engrossed in a highly erotic thriller on television. Cursing, he searched for the video remote control.
The caller was an Inspector Venables of Manchester police. ‘We’ve got your Mr Piers Stanton Smith in custody, sir,’ he said. ‘I hesitated about phoning so late, but I thought you’d want to know.’
‘Not to worry,’ replied McKenna. ‘Smith is a thorn in the side of many.’
Venables laughed. ‘You know, we’ve been following his recent career more avidly than any TV soap, although that’s not why he’s in the cells. We picked him up with a cart-load of the like-minded in one of the gay clubs, flirting with a bunch of very young boys, who’ll be interviewed as soon as social services arrive. Mind you,’ he went on, ‘I expect most of them will be in care. We’ve got two fourteen-year-olds from a local children’s home coming up on attempted murder charges next month, would you believe. One of them decoyed a well-known headmaster out of this same club on the promise of a fumble in a nearby alleyway, where the other boy ambushed him with a baseball bat.’
‘D’you keep the place under surveillance?’
‘Off and on. Tonight’s raid was planned some time ago.’
‘Are you sure you had grounds to arrest Smith?’ asked McKenna. ‘You can do without accusations of police harassment.’
‘Oh, we’re certain to be accused of that,’ Venables said. ‘We always are. His solicitor’s here already, spitting feathers.’
‘But Smith could have gone to the club in all innocence,’ McKenna persisted. ‘Did he seem out of place? Was it unfamiliar territory for him?’
‘When we got there, the barman was calling him over for his drinks,’ Venables said. ‘By name. Then again, I dare say every queer this side of the Pennines knows Smith. How a faggot like him cons women into marrying him is beyond me.’ He paused. ‘I shan’t say unless my arm gets twisted, but we’ve got him on video as well. He spent the early part of the evening cruising nearby public lavatories, then went arm in arm into the club with a very butch piece in head-to-foot black leather.’
‘Sounds good enough.’ Peering at the video-recorder to make sure it was working, McKenna added: ‘Have you rung his wife yet? She reported him missing to the local police.’
‘His solicitor called her,’ Venables said. ‘She rang us, and she was in a right state, but all she said was: “Tell him I’m on my way, and I love him.” She didn’t even bother to ask why he’d been arrested.’
‘Don’t be surprised if she doesn’t arrive. The roads out of Haughton are probably blocked by now.’
Like Beryl, Smith’s solicitor had happily rushed out into the snow on his client’s behalf. At twenty past midnight, heedless of the hour, he called McKenna.
‘My name is Andrew Lyons. I am Mr Stanton Smith’s solicitor.’ The voice was sharp. ‘You should be here, Superintendent. My client is waiting to speak to you.’
‘My client has some crucial information about the death of his first wife, and needs to speak to you as a matter of urgency.’
‘Was Inspector Venables informed of this?’
‘After he called you, we assumed you were on your way. My client has no intention of discussing such confidential matters with anyone except yourself.’
‘In other words,’ McKenna commented, ‘nothing was said to Venables.’ Without waiting for a response, he asked: ‘Why haven’t you or your client approached me already with this information?’
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