Authors: Dick Francis,FELIX FRANCIS
‘Thank you,’ I said, taking it. ‘Do you know who delivered it?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘It was pushed through the letter box in the front door.’
He waited but I made no move to open the envelope, and he eventually walked over to the door and went out.
I sat looking at the envelope for a few moments. I told myself that it was probably a note from a colleague in other chambers about some case or other. But, of course, it wasn’t.
It contained two items. Asingle piece of white paper folded over and a photograph. It was another message and, this time, it left me in no doubt at all that the whispered telephone calls and Julian Trent’s visit had both been connected.
Four lines of printed bold capitals ran across the centre of the paper:
BE A GOOD LITTLE LAWYER,
TAKE THE STEVE MITCHELL CASE – AND LOSE IT.
DO AS YOU ARE TOLD
NEXT TIME, SOMEONE WILL GET BADLY HURT.
The photograph was of my seventy-eight-year-old father standing outside his home in Northamptonshire.
An Englishman’s house is his castle, at least so they say. So I sat in my castle with the drawbridge pulled up and thought about what was happening to me.
I had decided against my usual walk through Gray’s Inn to the bus stop in High Holborn, the ride on a number 521 to Waterloo and a crowded commuter train to Barnes, followed by the hike across the common. Instead, I had ordered a taxi that had come right to the front door of chambers to collect me, and had then delivered me safe and sound to Ranelagh Avenue, to my home, my castle.
Now I sat on a bar stool at my kitchen counter and looked again and again at the sheet of white paper.
TAKE THE STEVE MITCHELL CASE – AND LOSE IT
. From what I had heard from Bruce Lygon there wouldn’t be much trouble in losing the case. All the evidence seemed topoint that way. But why was someone so keen to be sure that it was lost? Was Steve correct when he said he’d been framed?
DO AS YOU ARE TOLD
. Did that just mean that I must take the case and lose it, or were there other things as well that I would be told to do? And how was the attack by Julian Trent
Next time, I’ll smash your head
, he’d said.
Next time, I’ll cut your balls right off
. Maybe being beaten up had absolutely nothing to do with Trent’s trial last March. Perhaps it was all to do with Steve Mitchell’s trial in the future.
I had once had a client, a rather unsavoury individual, who had told me that the only thing better than getting away with doing a crime was to get someone else convicted for having done it. That way, he’d explained, the police aren’t even looking any more.
‘Don’t you have any conscience about some poor soul doing jail time for something you did?’ I had asked him.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ he’d said. ‘It makes me laugh. I don’t care about anyone else.’ There really was no such thing as honour amongst thieves.
Was that what was going on here? Stitch up Steve Mitchell for Scot Barlow’s murder and, hey presto, the crime is solved but the real murderer is safe and well and living in clover.
I called my father.
‘Hello,’ he said in his usual rather formal tone. I could imagine him sitting in front of the television in his bungalow watching the early evening news.
‘Hello, Dad,’ I said.
‘Ah, Geoff,’ he said. ‘How are things in the Smoke?’
‘Fine, thanks. How are things with you?’ It was a ritual. We spoke on the telephone about once a week and, every time, we exchanged these pleasantries. Sadly, these days we had little else to say to one another. We lived in different worlds. We had never been particularly close and he had moved to the village of Kings Sutton, near Banbury, from his native urban Surrey after my mother had died. I had thought that it had been a
strange choice but perhaps, unlike me, he had needed to escape his memories.
‘Much the same,’ he said.
‘Dad,’ I said. ‘I know this is a strange question, but what have you been wearing today?’
‘Clothes,’ he said, amused. ‘Same as always. Why?’
‘What clothes?’ I asked.
‘Why do you need to know?’ he demanded suspiciously. We both knew that I was apt to criticize my father’s rather ageing wardrobe, and he didn’t like it.
‘I just do,’ I said. ‘Please.’
‘Fawn corduroy trousers and a yellow shirt under a green pullover,’ he said.
‘Does the pullover have any holes in it?’ I asked.
‘None of your business,’ he said sharply.
‘Does it have a hole in the left elbow?’ I persisted.
‘Only a small one,’ he said defensively. ‘It’s perfectly all right to wear around the house. Now what is this all about?’
‘Nothing,’ I said lightly. ‘Forget it. Forget I asked.’
‘You’re a strange boy,’ he said. He often said it. I thought he was a strange father, but I kept that to myself.
‘I’ll call you on Sunday then,’ I said to him. I often called on Sundays.
‘Right. Bye for now then.’ He put down the receiver at his end. He’d never liked talking on the phone and he was habitually eager to finish a conversation as soon as it had started. Today we had been briefer than usual.
I sat and stared at the photograph in my hand, the photograph that had accompanied the note in the white envelope. It showed my father outside the front door of his bungalow wearing fawn-coloured trousers, a yellow shirt and a green pullover with a
small hole clearly visible on the left elbow, the yellow of the shirt beneath contrasting with the dark green of the wool. The photo had to have been taken today. For all his reluctance to buy new clothes, my father could never be accused of wearing dirty ones, and he always put on a clean shirt crisp from the local laundry every morning. I suppose he might have had more than one yellow shirt, but I doubted it.
But how, I thought, had they, whoever they were, managed to get a photograph of my father so quickly? Julian Trent had been released from custody only on Friday, and Scot Barlow murdered only yesterday. I wondered if the one had been dependent on the other.
Bruce Lygon still hadn’t called me, so I didn’t even know if Steve Mitchell had yet been charged with murder, but here I was, already being told to make sure he was convicted.
As if on cue, my telephone rang.
‘Hello,’ I said, picking it up.
‘Geoffrey?’ said a now familiar voice.
‘Bruce,’ I replied. ‘What news?’
‘I’m on my way to have dinner with my wife,’ he said. ‘They charged Mitchell with murder at six this evening and he’ll be in court tomorrow at ten.’
‘Which court?’ I asked.
‘Newbury magistrates,’ he said. ‘He’s sure to be remanded. No provincial magistrate would ever give bail on a murder charge. I’ll apply, of course, but it will have to go before a judge for there to be any chance, and I think it’s most unlikely, considering the cause of death. Very nasty.’
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I agree, but you never know when there is a bit of celebrity factor.’ Under English law the granting of bail was a basic right for all accused and there had to be a good
reason for refusing it. In this case the reason given might be that the ferociousness of the attack provided reasonable grounds to believe that the accused might do it again, or that, owing to the seriousness of the charge, he might abscond. Either way, I would bet my year’s pay that Steve Mitchell would find himself locked up on remand the following day.
‘Mr Mitchell is very insistent that you should defend him,’ Bruce Lygon went on.
How ironic, I thought. Did Steve also want me to lose?
‘I’m only a junior,’ I said. ‘Someone of Steve Mitchell’s standing would expect a silk.’
‘He seems determined that it should be you,’ he replied.
But even if I had wanted to lead the defence, the trial judge would be likely to ask some telling questions about how I intended to strengthen the defence team, especially at the front. It would be a coded recommendation to get a QC to lead.
The best I might expect was to be appointed as a silk’s junior in the case. As such I might be responsible for doing most of the work. But I would get little of the credit for obtaining an acquittal, while shouldering most of the blame if our client were convicted. Such was the life of a junior.
What was I even thinking about? I told myself. I could not act in this case. The law wouldn’t let me.
Do as you are told.
Next time, I’ll smash your head.
I’ll cut your balls right off.
Someone will get badly hurt.
Oh hell. What do I do?
‘Are you still there?’ Bruce asked.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I was thinking.’
‘I’ll contact your clerk in due course, then, I’ve got the number,’ he said.
‘Fine,’ I replied. Was I mad? ‘But Bruce,’ I went on. ‘Will you call me tomorrow and tell me what happens. And where Mitchell is sent. I’d like to go and talk with him.’
‘OK,’ he said, slowly. ‘I suppose that will be all right.’ I could tell from his tone that he didn’t like it.
What a cheek, I thought. It had been me that had given him his celebrity client and now he was becoming protective of his position.
‘Look, Bruce,’ I said. ‘I’m not trying to steal your client, whom, you might recall, I gave you in the first place. But I need to speak to Steve Mitchell and may need to do so more than once. If he chooses, and I have no intention of convincing him otherwise, you can act for him throughout, including at trial. All I ask of you is that you engage a brief from my chambers, whether it be me or not. Is that fair?’
‘Oh, absolutely,’ he replied, backtracking a little. Perhaps he too had suddenly worked out that Steve Mitchell was my friend and would, on my say-so, drop Mr Bruce Lygon quicker than a red-hot coal. Bruce needed me, not vice versa.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘Then you will call me?’
‘You bet,’ he said. ‘Straight after the hearing.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Now go and enjoy your dinner. Say happy birthday to your wife.’
‘I will,’ he said. ‘I will.’
As expected, Steve Mitchell was remanded in custody at the brief hearing at Newbury magistrates’ court at ten the following morning. According to the report on the lunchtime news, he
had spoken only to confirm his name and address. No plea had been entered, and none asked for. The report concluded with the fact that Mitchell had been remanded to Bullingdon Prison, near Bicester, to appear again at Oxford Crown Court in seven days’ time.
I was watching the TV in one of the conference rooms in chambers. My conspiracy-to-defraud trial had ended abruptly and unexpectedly when the court had resumed at ten thirty that morning. Accepting the inevitable, the brothers had changed their pleas to guilty in the hope and expectation of getting a lesser sentence. The judge, caught slightly unawares, and having promptly thanked and dismissed the jury, ordered reports on the two men and then adjourned the case for sixteen days. We would reassemble for sentencing two weeks on Friday at ten.
I was pleased. Any victory is good, but one where the defendants change their plea is particularly gratifying as it means that, even though I would never know if I had actually persuaded the jury of their guilt, the defendants themselves were convinced that I had. So, now believing they had no chance of acquittal, they had jumped before they were pushed. And best of all, it also meant that I had two clear weeks that I had expected to spend at Blackfriars Crown Court now available for other things. And that was rare. Trials tended to overrun, not finish early. It felt like the end of term at school.
Arthur had not been around when I had arrived back from court but he was in the clerks’ room when I went through from the conference room and back to my desk.
‘Arthur,’ I said. ‘You might expect a call from a Mr Bruce Lygon. He’s a solicitor in Newbury. He’s acting for Steve Mitchell.’
‘The jockey?’ Arthur asked.
‘One and the same,’ I said. ‘Apparently Mr Mitchell wants me as his counsel.’
‘I’m sure we can find him a silk,’ said Arthur. He wasn’t being discourteous, just realistic.
‘That’s what I told Mr Lygon,’ I said.
Arthur nodded and made a note. ‘I’ll be ready when he calls.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, and went on through to my room.
I called Bruce Lygon. He had left a message after the magistrates’ hearing but I needed him to do more.
‘Bruce,’ I said when he answered. ‘I want to visit the crime scene. Can you fix it with the police?’ The lawyers for the accused were entitled to have access to the scene but at the discretion of the police, and not prior to the collection of forensic evidence.
‘With or without me?’ he asked.
‘As you like,’ I said. ‘But as soon as possible, please.’
‘Does this mean you will act for him?’ he asked.
‘No, it doesn’t,’ I said. ‘Not yet. It might help me make up my mind.’
‘But only his representatives have access,’ he said.
I knew. ‘If you don’t tell the police,’ I said, ‘then they will never know.’
‘Right,’ he said slowly. I felt that he was confused. He was not the only one.
‘And can you arrange an interview for me with Mitchell at Bullingdon?’
‘But you’re not…’ he tailed off. ‘I suppose it might be possible,’ he said finally.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘Tomorrow would be great.’
‘Right,’ he said again. ‘I’ll get back to you then.’
Bruce had been a lucky choice. He was so keen to be representing his celebrity client that he seemed happy to overlook a few departures from proper procedure, to bend the rules just a little. I decided not to tell Arthur what was going on. He wouldn’t have been the least bit flexible.
Steve Mitchell was very agitated when I met him at noon the following day at Bullingdon Prison. I currently didn’t own a car as I found it an unnecessary expense, especially with the congestion charge and the ever-rising cost of parking in London. However, I probably spent at least half of what I saved on hiring cars from the Hertz office on Fulham Palace Road. This time they had provided me with a bronze-coloured Ford Mondeo that had easily swallowed up the fifty or so miles to Oxfordshire.
‘God, Perry,’ Steve said as he came into the stark prison interview room reserved for lawyers to meet with their clients. ‘Get me out of this bloody place.’