A Place of Execution (1999)

BOOK: A Place of Execution (1999)
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Val McDermid

A Place of Execution

1999

Winter 1963: two children have disappeared in Manchester; the murderous careers of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady have begun. On a freezing day in December, another child goes missing: 13-year-old Alison Carter vanishes from the isolated Derbyshire hamlet of Scardale. For the young George Bennett it is the beginning of his most difficult and harrowing case: a murder with no body, an investigation with more dead ends and closed faces than he’d have found in the inner city; an outcome that reverberates down the years. Decades later he tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote, but just when her book is poised for publication, Bennett tries to pull the plug. He has new information that he will not divulge, and that threatens the very foundation of his existence. Catherine is forced to reinvestigate the past, with results that turn the world upside down. A taut psychological thriller that explores, exposes and explodes the border between reality and illusion in a multilayered narrative that turns expectations on their head and reminds us that what we know is what we do not know…

Introduction

L
ike Alison Carter, I was born in Derbyshire in 1950. Like her, I grew up familiar with the limestone dales of the White Peak, no stranger to the winter blizzards that regularly cut us off from the rest of the country. It was in Buxton, after all, that snow once stopped play in a county cricket match in June.

So when Alison Carter went missing in December 1963, it meant more to me and my classmates than it can have done to most other people. We knew villages like the one she’d grown up in. We knew the sort of things she’d have done every day. We suffered through similar classes and cloakroom arguments about which of the Fab Four was our favourite Beatle. We imagined we shared the same hopes, dreams and fears. Because of that, right from the word go, we all knew something terrible had happened to Alison Carter, because something we also knew was that girls like her—like us—didn’t run away. Not in Derbyshire in the middle of December, anyway.

It wasn’t just the thirteen-year-old girls who understood that. My father was one of the hundreds of volunteer searchers who combed the high moorland and the wooded valleys around Scardale, and his grim face when he returned home after a fruitless day scouring the landscape is still sharply etched in my memory.

We followed the hunt for Alison Carter in the newspapers, and every day at school for weeks, someone would be bound to start the speculation rolling. All these years later, I still had more questions for George Bennett than the former policeman could answer.

I have not based my narrative solely on George Bennett’s contemporaneous notes and current memories. While researching this book, I made several visits to Scardale and the surrounding area, interviewing many of the people who played a part in the unfolding of Alison Carter’s story, gathering their impressions, comparing their accounts of events as they experienced them. I could not have completed this book without the help of Janet Carter, Tommy Clough, Peter Grundy, Charles Lomas, Kathy Lomas and Don Smart. I have taken some artistic licence in ascribing thoughts, emotions and dialogue to people, but these sections are based on my interviews with those of the surviving protagonists who agreed to help me to try to create a truthful picture both of a community and the individuals within it.

Some of what happened on that terrible December night in 1963 will of course never be known.

But for everyone who has ever been touched, however remotely, by Alison Carter’s life and death, George Bennett’s story is a fascinating insight into one of the most heartless crimes of the 1960
s
.

For too long, it has remained hidden in the shadow of the understandably more notorious Moors Murders. But Alison Carter’s fate is no less terrible for coming at the hands of a killer who had but a single victim. And the message of her death is still as important today. If Alison Carter’s story tells us one thing, it is that even the gravest of dangers can wear a friendly face.

Nothing can bring Alison Carter back. But reminding the world of what happened to her might prevent others coming to harm. If this book achieves that, both George Bennett and I will feel some satisfaction.

Catherine Heathcote Longnor, 1998

Prologue

T
he girl was saying goodbye to her life. And it was no easy farewell. Like any teenager, she’d always found plenty to complain about. But now that she was about to lose it, this life suddenly seemed very desirable. Now at last she began to understand why her elderly relatives clung so tenaciously to every precious moment, even if it was riven with pain. However bad this life was, the alternative was infinitely worse. She had even begun to regret things. All the times she’d wished her mother dead; all the times she’d wished that her dream of being a changeling would come true; all the hate she’d expended on the children at school who had called her names for not being one of them; all the fervent longings to be grown up, with these miseries behind her. It all seemed irrelevant now. The only thing that mattered was the uniquely valuable life she was about to lose. She felt fear, inevitably. Fear of what lay beyond as well as what lay immediately ahead.

She’d been brought up to believe in heaven and in its necessary counterweight, hell, the equal and opposite force that held things stable. She had her own very clear ideas of what heaven would be.

More than she had ever hoped anything in her short life, she hoped that that was what lay in wait for her, so terrifyingly close now. But she was desperately afraid that what she was going to was hell. She wasn’t so clear about what hell would consist of. She just knew that, compared to everything she’d hated about her life, it would be worse. And given what she knew, that meant it was going to be very bad indeed. Nevertheless, there was no other possible choice for her. The girl had to say goodbye to her life.

For ever.

Part One

The Early Stages

Manchester Evening News, Tuesday, 10
th
December 1963, p.3

100 reward in boy hunt

Police continued to hunt for 12-year-old John Kilbride today and hoped that a 100 reward might produce a new lead.

For a local managing director has offered 100 to anyone who gives information which leads directly to the discovery of John who vanished from his home in Smallshaw Lane, Ashton-under-Lyne 18 days ago.

1

Wednesday, 11
th
December 1963. 7.53
PM

H
elp me. You’ve got to help me.’ The woman’s voice quavered on the edge of tears. The duty constable who had picked up the phone heard a hiccuping gulp, as if the caller was struggling to speak. ‘That’s what we’re here for, madam,’ PC Ron Swindells said stolidly. He’d worked in Buxton man and boy for the best part of fifteen years and for the last five, he’d found it hard to shake off a sense that he was reliving the first ten. There was, he reckoned, nothing new under the sun. It was a view that would be irrevocably shattered by the events that were about to unfold around him, but for the moment, he was content to trot out the formula that had served him well until now. ‘What seems to be the problem?’ he asked, his rich bass voice gently impersonal.

‘Alison,’ the woman gasped. ‘My Alison’s not come home.’

‘Alison’s your lass, is she?’ PC Swindells asked, his voice deliberately calm, attempting to reassure the woman.

‘She went straight out with the dog when she came in after school. And she’s not come home.’ The sharp edge of hysteria forced the woman’s voice higher.

Swindells glanced automatically at the clock. Seven minutes before eight. The woman was right to be worried. The girl must have been out of the house near on four hours, and that was no joke at this time of year. ‘Could she have gone to visit friends, on the spur of the moment, like?’ he asked, knowing already that would have been her first port of call before she lifted the telephone.

‘I’ve knocked every door in the village. She’s missing, I’m telling you. Something’s happened to my Alison.’ Now the woman was breaking down, her words choking out in the intervals between sobs. Swindells thought he heard the rumble of another voice in the background.

Village, the woman had said. ‘Where exactly are you calling from, madam?’ he asked.

There was the sound of muffled conversation, then a clear masculine voice came on the line, the unmistakable southern accent brisk with authority. ‘This is Philip Hawkin from the manor house in Scardale,’ he said.

‘I see, sir,’ Swindells said cautiously. While the information didn’t exactly change anything, it did make the policeman slightly wary, conscious that Scardale was off his beat in more ways than the obvious. Scardale wasn’t just a different world from the bustling market town where Swindells lived and worked; it had the reputation of being a law unto itself. For such a call to come from Scardale, something well out of the ordinary must have happened.

The caller’s voice dropped in pitch, giving the impression that he was talking man to man with Swindells. ‘You must excuse my wife. She’s rather upset. So emotional, women, don’t you find? Look, Officer, I’m sure no harm has come to Alison, but my wife insisted on giving you a call. I’m sure she’ll turn up any minute now, and the last thing I want is to waste your time.’

‘If you’ll just give me some details, sir,’ the stolid Swindells said, pulling his pad closer to him.

Detective Inspector George Bennett should have been at home long since. It was almost eight o’clock, well beyond the hour when senior detectives were expected to be at their desks. By rights, he should have been in his armchair stretching his long legs in front of a blazing coal fire, dinner inside him and Coronation Street on the television opposite. Then, while Anne cleared away the dishes and washed up, he’d nip out for a pint and a chat in the lounge bar of the Duke of York or the Baker’s Arms. There was no quicker way to get the feel of a place than through bar-room conversation. And he needed that head start more than any of his colleagues, being an incomer of less than six months’ standing. He knew the locals didn’t trust him with much of their gossip, but gradually, they were beginning to treat him like part of the furniture, forgiving and forgetting that his father and grandfather had supped in a different part of the shire.

He glanced at his watch. He’d be lucky to get to the pub tonight. Not that he counted that a great hardship. George wasn’t a drinking man. If he hadn’t been obliged by his professional responsibilities to keep his finger firmly on the pulse of the town, he wouldn’t have entered a pub from one week to the next. He’d much rather have taken Anne dancing to one of the new beat groups that regularly played at the Pavilion Gardens, or to the Opera House to see a film. Or simply stayed at home. Three months married, and George still couldn’t quite believe Anne had agreed to spend the rest of her life with him. It was a miracle that sustained him through the worst times in the job. So far, those had come from tedium rather than the heinous nature of the crimes he encountered. The events of the coming seven months would put that miracle to a tougher test. That night, however, the thought of Anne at home, knitting in front of the television while she waited for him to return, was far more of a temptation than any pint of bitter. George tore a half-sheet of paper off his scratch pad, placed it among the papers he’d been reading to mark his place, and firmly closed the file, slipping it into his desk drawer. He stubbed out his Gold Leaf cigarette then emptied his ashtray into the bin by his desk, always his last act before he reached for his trench coat and, self-consciously, the wide-brimmed trilby that always made him feel faintly silly. Anne loved it; she was always telling him it made him look like James Stewart. He couldn’t see it himself. Just because he had a long face and floppy blond hair didn’t make him a film star. He shrugged into the coat, noting that it fitted almost too snugly now, thanks to the quilted lining Anne had made him buy. In spite of the slight straining across his broad cricketer’s shoulders, he knew he’d be glad of it as soon as he stepped into the station yard and the teeth of the biting wind that always seemed to be whipping down from the moors through the streets of Buxton. Taking a last look around his office to check he’d left nothing lying around that the cleaner’s eyes shouldn’t see, he closed the door behind him. A quick glance showed him there was nobody left in the CID room, so he turned back to indulge a moment’s vanity. ‘Detective Inspector G.D. Bennett’ incised in white letters on a small black plastic plaque. It was something to be proud of, he thought. Not yet thirty, and a DI already. It had been worth every tedious minute of the three years of endless cramming for the law degree that had eased him on to the fast track, one of the first ever graduates to make it to the new accelerated promotion stream in the Derbyshire force. Now, seven years from swearing his oath of allegiance, he was the youngest plain-clothes inspector the county force had ever promoted.

BOOK: A Place of Execution (1999)
13.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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