Authors: Dick Francis,FELIX FRANCIS
‘Thanks,’ he said.
‘And Steve,’ I said earnestly, ‘listen to me. You don’t have to answer any questions until he arrives. Do you understand?’
‘Yes,’ he said with a yawn in his voice.
‘What time did you get up this morning?’ I asked him.
‘Usual time,’ he said. ‘Ten to six. I was riding out at seven.’
‘Tell the police that you are tired and need to sleep. Tell them that you have been awake for nearly seventeen hours and you are entitled to have a rest before being interviewed.’ Strictly, it may not have been true, but it was worth a try.
‘Right,’ he said.
‘And when the solicitor does arrive, take his advice absolutely.’
‘OK,’ he said rather flatly. ‘I will.’
Did he, I wondered, sound like a guilty man resigned to his fate?
I called a solicitor I knew in Oxford and asked him. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he replied in his Australian accent, he was too busy teaching some gorgeous young university student the joys of sleeping with an older man. I had learned from experience not to ask him if the gorgeous young student was male or female. However, he did rouse himself sufficiently to give me the name of a firm in Newbury that he could recommend, together with one of their partners’ mobile phone number.
Sure, said the partner when I called, he would go. Steve Mitchell was quite famous in those parts, and representing a celebrity client accused of murder was every local solicitor’s dream. To say nothing of the potential size of the fee.
I returned to my, now cold, pasta and thought again about last Saturday at Sandown. I went over in my mind everything that had been said, and particularly I recalled the strange encounter with the battered Scot Barlow in the showers.
It was not unknown for barristers to represent their friends and even members of their own families. Some senior QCs, it
was said, had such a wide circle of friends that they spent their whole lives defending them against criminal or civil proceedings. Personally, I tried to avoid getting myself into such a position. Friendships to me were too important to place in jeopardy by having to lay bare all one’s secrets and emotions. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is rare even amongst the closest of chums, and a friend would far more resent being asked a question he didn’t want to answer by me than if a complete stranger had done it. Victory in court may cause the friendship to founder anyway due to too much intimate knowledge, and if one lost the case then one lost the friend for sure.
So I usually invented some little ruse to avoid the situation. I would often say that so-and-so in my chambers was much better qualified or experienced to accept the brief, or that I was too busy with other cases and that so-and-so could devote more time to preparing the defence case. I always promised to keep abreast of the facts in the case, and sometimes I even managed to.
However, this time I didn’t need to invent an excuse. I couldn’t act for Steve Mitchell because I was privy to some material evidence and was far more likely to be called to testify for the prosecution than to be one of the defence counsel. But, I thought, there had been no other witness to the exchange between Barlow and me in the Sandown showers, and now Barlow was dead. To whom, I thought, should I volunteer the information? And when?
The murder of top jump jockey Scot Barlow was the number one item on the eight o’clock television news bulletin the following
morning. A reporter, standing outside the property, claimed that Barlow had been found lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen of his home with a five-foot-long, two-pronged pitchfork embedded in his chest. The reporter also stated that someone was helping the police with their enquiries. He didn’t say that the someone was Steve Mitchell, but he didn’t say it wasn’t.
My mobile phone rang as I was buttering a slice of toast.
‘Hello,’ I said, picking it up.
‘Is that Geoffrey Mason?’ asked a very quiet well-spoken male voice in a whisper.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Do as you are told,’ said the voice, very quietly, but very distinctly.
‘What did you say?’ I asked, surprised.
‘Do as you are told,’ the voice repeated in the same manner.
‘Who is this?’ I demanded, but, in response, the caller simply hung up.
I looked at the phone in my hand as if it would tell me.
Do as I was told, the man had said. But he hadn’t told me what I had to do, or when. It couldn’t have been a wrong number; he had asked me my name. How very odd, I thought.
I checked through the list of received calls but, as I expected, the caller had withheld his number.
The phone in my hand rang again suddenly, making me jump and drop it onto the kitchen counter. I grabbed at it and pushed the button.
‘Hello?’ I said rather tentatively.
‘Is that Geoffrey Mason?’ asked a male voice, a different male voice.
‘Yes,’ I replied, cautiously. ‘Who is this?’
‘Bruce Lygon,’ said the voice.
‘Oh,’ I said, relieved. Bruce Lygon was the solicitor from Newbury I had called the night before.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked.
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I thought you might be someone else.’
‘Your friend seems to be in a bit of a hole here,’ he said. ‘The cops think there’s not much doubt he did it. That’s clear from their questions. We’ve been at it since six this morning. We’re just having a short break while the detectives have a conference.’
‘What’s the evidence?’ I asked him.
‘They haven’t revealed much as yet but I gather that the victim was stabbed with some sort of fork.’
‘They reported that on the television,’ I said.
‘Did they indeed?’ he said. ‘Well, it appears that the fork belongs to Mr Mitchell.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘Yeah, and that’s not all,’ he said. ‘As well as Mr Barlow, there were some betting slips also impaled on the fork and they belonged to Mr Mitchell as well. They had his name on them.’
‘Oh,’ I said again.
‘And,’ he went on, ‘there was a text message received yesterday afternoon on Barlow’s mobile from Mitchell saying that he was going to, and I quote, “come round and sort you out properly you sneaking little bastard”.’
‘And what does Mitchell have to say?’ I asked.
‘Nothing,’ said Bruce. ‘But then again, I told him not to. He just sits there looking pale and scared.’
‘But what has he said to you privately?’ I asked.
‘He mumbled something about being framed,’ Bruce replied, but I could tell from his tone that he didn’t believe it. ‘Do you want me to stay here?’
‘It’s not my decision,’ I said. ‘Steve Mitchell is your client, not me. Ask him.’
‘I have,’ he said. ‘He told me to call you and to do whatever you said.’
Bugger, I thought. I just could not get involved with this case. I knew too much about it for a start, and it looked like it was pretty much a foregone conclusion, and that was another good reason for not getting involved. Acquiring a reputation in chambers for having too many courtroom losses wouldn’t help my potential QC credentials either.
‘You had better stay then,’ I said, ‘but remind Mr Mitchell that it’s you and not me who’s acting for him, and I can’t make those decisions. Have they charged him yet?’
‘No,’ he replied. ‘More questioning first. And I know they are searching his place. They told him so. There will be more questions from that, I expect.’
Under English law, the police could only question a suspect prior to charging.
‘When’s their time up?’ I asked him. The police had a maximum of thirty-six hours from when he first arrived at the police station before they either charged Steve, brought him before a magistrate to ask for more time, or released him.
‘According to the record, he was arrested at eight fifty-three last night and arrived at the police station at nine fifty-seven,’ he said. ‘So far they haven’t asked for more time and I think it’s unlikely they will. I don’t think they need his answers. Their body language says that they have enough to charge without them.’
‘So you’ll stay until he’s charged?’ I asked.
‘Only if they charge him before six,’ he said. ‘After that I’m taking my wife out to dinner for her birthday, and I’d rather
face the Law Society than fail to do that.’ There was laughter in his voice. Steve Mitchell might be facing the toughest contest of his sporting life, but it was still just a job to Bruce Lygon. ‘But don’t worry, there’ll be someone here from my firm if I’m not.’
‘Great,’ I said. ‘Please keep me informed, but I’m not actually representing him.’ But, like everybody else, I was curious about murder, especially as I also knew the victim.
‘I will if I can, but only if he says so.’
He was right, of course, client confidentiality and all that.
Steve Mitchell’s arrest was the front-page story on the midday edition of the
. I grabbed a copy as I dodged the rain outside Blackfriars Crown Court on my way to a local café for some lunch. ‘
TOP JOCK HELD FOR MURDER
’, shouted the banner headline alongside a library picture of a smiling Scot Barlow. The story gave little more detail than I already knew, but the report speculated that the murder had been in revenge for Barlow giving the racing authorities details of Mitchell’s illegal gambling activities.
I turned on my mobile phone. There was one voicemail message but it wasn’t from Bruce Lygon. It was from the quiet, well-spoken male whisperer. ‘Remember,’ he said menacingly, ‘do exactly as you are told.’
I sat in the window of the café eating a cheese and pickle sandwich, trying to work out what on earth it was all about. No one had told me to do anything, so how could I do it? I would have dismissed it as mistaken identity except that the caller this morning had asked if I was Geoffrey Mason. And, indeed, I was. But were there two Geoffrey Masons? There must be, but there was only one with my phone number.
I decided to ignore that problem and concentrate on the matter currently in hand. The judge that morning had not been very helpful and he had not been greatly swayed by my arguments concerning the admissibility of prior convictions in the conspiracy-to-defraud trial of the brothers. It made the case more difficult to prosecute, but not impossible. After all, the brothers had admitted having done it. All we had to do was convince the jury they had done it for gain.
I called Bruce Lygon.
‘Any news?’ I asked him.
‘No.’ He sounded bored. ‘They are apparently waiting for the results of some forensics. From his clothes and shoes, I think. And his car.’
‘How is he?’ I said.
‘Pretty fed up,’ he said. ‘Keeps saying he should be riding at Huntingdon races. Asks when he can go home. I don’t think he fully realizes the extent of the mess he’s in.’
‘So you think he will definitely be charged?’ I asked.
‘Oh yeah, no question. They haven’t even bothered to question him for the past four hours. They’re sure he did it. One of them said as much to him and asked whether he wanted to confess and save them all a lot of trouble.’
‘What did he say?’ I asked.
‘Told them to get lost, or words to that effect.’ I smiled. I could imagine the actual exchange. Steve didn’t talk to anyone without at least a few bloodys sprinkled in.
‘Well, for your sake, I hope they charge him by six,’ I said, thinking of his wife’s birthday dinner. ‘Will it be you that goes with him to the magistrate’s court in the morning?’
‘Will I? Are you kidding?’ he said. ‘It’s not every day I get a case that leads on the lunchtime news. Even the wife says to
stay here all night if I have to. Don’t let him out of your sight, she said, just in case he finds himself another solicitor.’
Maybe it was more than just a job to Bruce, after all. But if he thought representing a guilty but popular and celebrated client would bring him any respect he was much mistaken. Two years before I had been dramatically unsuccessful in defending a much-loved middle-aged comedy TV actress from a charge of deliberate shoplifting and the subsequent assault of the store detective. She had committed the crimes but it had been me who had been universally denounced in the press for failing to get her off. Everyone knows it was George Carmen QC, who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, secured an acquittal for Ken Dodd for tax evasion, but no one remembers the counsel who failed to keep Lester Piggott out of jail on the same charge. Such as it is in life, and such as it is in racing. Winning is all. Coming second is a disaster, even if it’s by the slightest margin, the shortest of short heads.
The afternoon was little better than the morning had been. The judge in the case seemed determined to be as unhelpful as possible, continually interrupting my questioning as I tried to cross-examine one of the defendants. In true Perry Mason style I was trying to trap him in a lie but, every time I thought I was getting close, the judge stopped me and asked if my line of questioning was relevant. This gave the defendant time to recover and recoup. He simply smiled at me and went on telling the jury his lies. I knew they were lies, and he knew they were lies. But, from their facial expressions, I realized that the jury were believing them. It was very frustrating.
I was beginning to think that I was about to notch up another courtroom loss when the elder of the brothers carelessly stated in response to my questions that you couldn’t believe what a previous witness for the prosecution had said because, he claimed, the witness was a convicted felon and a proven liar. On such things do trials turn. Because the defendant had called into question the character of a witness against him, we, the prosecution, were now entitled to call his character into question as well, and all his previous convictions were suddenly admissible into court. Hurrah. The poor defending barrister sat there with his head in his hands. He had done so well to keep the information from the jury through the judge’s earlier ruling, only for his own client to mortally hole the defence below the water line. Asinking was now inevitable.
The judge adjourned proceedings for the day soon after four o’clock with the prosecution well on top. Perhaps I would actually win the case.
I took a taxi back to chambers with my box of papers and my laptop. It had been a miserably wet autumnal November day in London and the daylight had fully gone by the time I paid off the cabbie on Theobald’s Road near the gated entrance to Raymond Buildings.