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Authors: Dick Francis,FELIX FRANCIS

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BOOK: Silks
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Perhaps my nervousness was the result of a guilty conscience. On more than one occasion during my early years I had been forced to sit and listen to Arthur deliver a warning about my conduct, no doubt passed down from my more senior colleagues. Even though each of us was self-employed, the level of our billing was relevant to the smooth running of chambers and no one would be carried as a passenger if their fees were below par. Fortunately for me, in spite of taking days away to ride in races, my fee base was strong and none of my colleagues could ever accuse me of not pulling my weight, which had been eleven stone three, stripped, at Sandown Park races on the previous Saturday.

I sat at my desk and looked out of the window at the Gray’s Inn Gardens, an oasis of calm in the centre of the great bustling metropolis of London. The lines of plane trees, which in summer gave shade to the hundreds of office workers who came to eat their lunchtime sandwiches, were now bare of their leaves and stood forlornly pointing skywards.

They reflected my mood. If our legal system couldn’t lock away dangerous brutes like Julian Trent because they frightened people away from telling the truth, then we were all in trouble.

Al Capone in 1920s Chicago was untouchable by the police. No witnesses to his many crimes of murder or assault would ever give evidence against him. It would have been a death sentence to have done so. Capone was so bold as to make public appearances for the media and was something of a celebrity around town, so sure was he that no one would bear witness against him. In the end the evidence that convicted him was a crude accounting ledger, allegedly in his own handwriting,
showing his vast unlawful income, which had been discovered in a desk during a routine police raid on an illicit liquor warehouse. United States law made it clear that even illegal earnings were subject to federal income tax, so he was found guilty, not of murder and mayhem but of tax evasion. Capone’s middle name was Gabriel but he was certainly no angel. The jury for his trial was changed on the day of the proceedings to frustrate attempts to bribe or threaten the original panel, and still he was convicted on only five of twenty-two charges. But it was enough. Abrave judge threw out the plea bargain and sentenced America’s Public Enemy No. 1 to eleven years in jail. Justice had triumphed over intimidation.

As Sir James Horley had said, it was an absolute disgrace it hadn’t done so in the Trent case.

I leaned back in my chair and yawned. Contrary to what Arthur might think, the reason I had arrived late was not that I was lazy, but because at five in the morning I had been still reading the case notes for a trial in which I was currently leading for the prosecution. The court was not sitting on this particular Monday and I could have spent the whole day in bed if I had been so inclined, but I needed to use the library.

The case was against a pair of brothers who had been accused of conspiracy. Such cases were always difficult to prosecute. When does dreaming about robbing a bank become conspiracy to do so? The brothers were accused of conspiring to defraud an insurance company through a loophole in their motoring policy. The brothers had claimed in court, and under oath, that they were only seeing if the scheme was possible in order that they could then tell the company so its security could be tightened, and that they had no intention of carrying through their plans and keeping the illegal payment.

This might have been perfectly believable, except that the brothers had twice before been convicted together of fraud and were suspected of many more. The question I had been spending so long researching, and for which I needed the chambers’ detailed index of trial records, was whether these facts could or could not be used in court. English law relies heavily on precedent to determine whether something can occur. If it has been allowed before then, by definition, it can be again. If it hasn’t happened in the past then it might be cause for appeal right up to the House of Lords for a ruling. The trial judge would make the decision, but counsel had to provide arguments first. In this instance, as the prosecutor, I needed to find similar circumstances from the past that would strengthen my case to have the brothers’ previous convictions revealed to the jury to show pattern of behaviour as evidence of their guilt.

Not all the work of a barrister is as exciting as that depicted in TV trial dramas.

Consequently, I spent the rest of the day with my nose in leather-bound volumes of trial records and then in front of my computer screen searching on the internet. At least, for the most part, my search was fairly restricted. Prior to 2004 evidence of previous convictions was excluded from trials completely except in very special circumstances.

The fact that someone has committed a crime before is not, in itself, evidence that they have done so again. In many cases, quite rightly, former misdeeds should not be used to sway a jury to produce another guilty verdict. Each case should be tried on the current facts rather than on those of previous incidents. Even the most prosecution minded of judges could often believe that allowing previous guilty verdicts to be disclosed to the jury might be prejudicial to a fair trial, and hence grounds for a
successful appeal. There is little worse for a barrister’s ego than to win a case for the prosecution in the Crown Court only for the verdict to be overturned on appeal. All those late nights of work, all those missed social engagements, all that effort and for what? For nothing.

Well, I suppose there was the fee, of course, but for me, as in racing, it was the winning that was far more important than the money.

By seven thirty I’d had enough of ploughing through past judgments, but at least, by then, I had produced an all too short but fairly comprehensive list of precedents to further my argument. I packed everything I needed into a box ready for the morning and slipped out into the night.

I lived in Barnes, south of the Thames in west London, where my wife, Angela, and I had bought half of an early Edwardian detached house in Ranelagh Avenue overlooking Barnes Common. Typical of its time, the house had been built with a lower ground floor with high-up windows where the servants had performed their duties cooking, washing, and generally looking after the family above, but it had since been modernized and converted into two homes. Angela and I had acquired the top half, the upper two floors with views over the treetops from the dormer windows of the bedrooms. Our neighbours below occupied the original ground floor of the property with its grand rooms, together with the old servants’ area below.

Angela and I had loved it. It had been the first home that we had owned together and we had lavished more time and money than was prudent on decorating the place and getting everything
ready for the birth of our first child, a son, due six months after we had moved in. That had been seven years ago.

As usual, I walked home across the common from Barnes station. It was almost completely dark, with just a few beams of light filtering through the leafless trees from distant street lights, but I knew every step of the route. I was about half way when I remembered Julian Trent and his baseball bat. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to walk alone across Barnes Common in the dark, but I had always felt more threatened when sticking to the roads with their meagre lighting. I stopped to listen for anyone behind me and I did turn round a few times to check, but I made it safely to my door without incident.

The house was lit up, but, as was normally the case, it was only the bottom half of the house that was bright. The upper floors were in darkness where I’d turned off the lights as I had left that morning.

I let myself in through my front door and went upstairs into the dark.

Angela wasn’t there, but I knew she wouldn’t be. Angela was dead.

I wondered if I would ever get used to coming home to an empty house. Perhaps I should have moved away long ago, but those first few months here had been the happiest of my life and, somehow, early on, I hadn’t wanted to abandon the memories, they were all I had left.

Angela had died suddenly of a massive pulmonary embolism just four weeks before our baby was due. She had kissed me goodbye on that fateful Monday morning as happy as I had
ever known her. It had been the first day of her maternity leave and she had still been in her dressing gown and slippers as I had left for work. All her life she had longed to have a child and now she was so close to fulfilling her dream. I had tried to call her several times during the day without any success but I had thought nothing was amiss until I had arrived home to find the place in darkness. Angela had always hated the dark, and she would have left lights on in the house even if she had gone out.

I had found her lying on the sitting-room floor, slightly curled as if she were asleep. But she had been so cold, and had obviously been dead for hours. Our son was dead too, inside her.

There had been no warning and no pre-existing condition. Regular checks at the clinic had revealed no hypertension, no pre-eclampsia. She had gone from healthy and happy to dead in the space of a few moments. So sad, the doctors had said, but it was the most common cause of sudden death during pregnancy. They also told me it would have been very quick and that she was likely unaware, losing consciousness almost instantaneously. Surprisingly, it was something of a comfort to know that she hadn’t suffered, that she hadn’t seen the void coming.

Everyone had been so kind. Friends had rallied round to make the necessary arrangements, my father had come to stay so I wouldn’t be alone, and even the judge in the trial I had been prosecuting had adjourned the proceedings until after Angela’s funeral. I could remember feeling like I was living in a time warp. There had been so much rushing around going on by others, while I had sat still and alone in my grief while the hours and days had dragged by.

Gradually, over the next few months, my life had sorted itself
out. I had gone back to work and my father had returned home. Friends had come round less often with ready-cooked meals, and they had stopped speaking in hushed tones. Invitations began again to arrive, and people began to say things to each other like, ‘He’s still young enough to find somebody else.’

Now it was seven years later and I had not found somebody else. I didn’t really want to because I was still in love with Angela. Not that I was foolish enough to think that she would come back from the dead or anything odd like that. I just wasn’t ready to find anybody else. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

I turned on the lights in the kitchen and looked in the fridge for something to eat. I was hungry, having missed my lunch, so I decided on salmon with penne pasta and pesto sauce. Since Angela died I had become quite a dab hand at cooking for one.

I had just sat down to eat in front of the television news when the phone rang. Typical, I thought, damn thing always goes at the wrong moment. Reluctantly I put my tray to one side, leaned over and picked up the receiver.

‘Hello,’ I said.

‘Perry?’ said a voice.

‘Yes,’ I replied slowly. After all, I’m not really Perry. I’m Geoffrey.

‘Thank God you’re there,’ said the voice. ‘This is Steve Mitchell.’

I thought back to our strange conversation in the Sandown jockeys’ changing room two days before.

‘How did you get my number?’ I asked him.

‘Oh,’ he said, as if distracted. ‘From Paul Newington. Look, Perry,’ he went on in a rush, ‘I’m in a bit of trouble and I badly need your help.’

‘What bit of trouble?’ I asked him.

‘Well, actually it could be rather a lot of trouble,’ he said. ‘That bastard Scot Barlow has got himself murdered and the bloody police have arrested me for doing it.’

C
HAPTER 3

‘And did you?’ I asked.

‘Did I what?’ Steve replied.

‘Murder Scot Barlow?’ I said.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Of course I bloody didn’t.’

‘Have the police interviewed you?’ I asked him.

‘Not yet,’ he said in a somewhat resigned tone. ‘But I think they plan to. I asked to call my lawyer. So I called you.’

‘I’m hardly your lawyer,’ I said to him.

‘Look, Perry,’ he said, ‘you’re the only lawyer I know.’ He was beginning to sound a little desperate.

‘You need a solicitor not a barrister,’ I said.

‘Solicitors, barristers, what’s the difference? You are a bloody lawyer, aren’t you? Will you help me or not?’

‘Calm down,’ I said, trying to sound reassuring. ‘Where are you exactly?’

‘Newbury,’ he said. ‘Newbury police station.’

‘How long have you been there?’ I asked.

‘About ten minutes, I think. They came to my house about an hour ago.’

I looked at my watch. It was ten past ten. Which solicitors
did I know in Newbury that could be roused at such an hour? None.

‘Steve,’ I said. ‘I can’t act in this matter as at the moment you need a solicitor, not a barrister. I will see what I can do to get you a solicitor I know to come to Newbury but it won’t be for a few hours at least.’

‘Oh God,’ he almost cried. ‘Can’t you come?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘It would be like asking a brain surgeon to remove your teeth. Much better for you if you get a dentist.’ I was sure that, as analogies go, and with more time, I could have done better. And not many solicitors I know would have been happy to be called a dentist, not least by some brain-surgeon barrister.

‘When will this bloody solicitor arrive?’ he asked, again sounding resigned.

‘As soon as I can arrange it,’ I said.

‘The police have told me that, if I want, I can talk to the duty solicitor, whoever that is,’ Steve said.

‘Well, you can,’ I replied. ‘And for free, but I wouldn’t if I were you.’

‘Why not?’ he asked.

‘At this time of night he’s likely to be a recently qualified young solicitor, or else one that can get no other work,’ I said. ‘You are facing a serious charge and I’d wait for someone with more experience if I were you.’

There was a long, quiet pause from the other end of the line.

‘OK, I’ll wait,’ he said.

‘Fine,’ I replied. ‘I’ll get someone there as soon as possible.’

BOOK: Silks
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