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Authors: Simon Hall

The Balance of Guilt

BOOK: The Balance of Guilt
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The Balance of Guilt

Simon Hall

Published by Accent Press Ltd – 2010

Paperback ISBN 9781907016066
PDF eBook ISBN 9781907726293
ePub eBook ISBN 9781907761393

Copyright © Simon Hall 2010

The right of Simon Hall to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

The story contained within this book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Accent Press Ltd, The Old School, Upper High St, Bedlinog, Mid Glamorgan, CF46 6RY.

About the author…

Simon Hall

Simon Hall is the BBC’s Crime Correspondent in the south-west of England. He also regularly broadcasts on BBC Radio Devon and BBC Radio Cornwall.

Simon has also been nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association
Dagger In The Library
Award.

For more information please visit Simon Hall’s website

www.thetvdetective.com

To Mum.
As you once carried the thought of me, now I bear your memory.

Acknowledgements

Sisters Angela and Clare, and all at St Joseph’s for their wonderful care and compassion, and the NHS and its staff, for everything they’ve done for Mum and Dad.

Charlotte Rockey, for her excellent historical research and analysis.

Mr Lewis, Mr Warr, Mr Butterworth, and Ms Dams, former tutors of the tearaway Hall, who were such inspirations, and to all the teachers who’ve had the misfortune to handle me over the years – I hope these books are a little compensation that I may actually have listened and learned something!

Finally, Exeter, the beautiful city that’s become my home, and all the fine friends I’ve found here who’ve made me so very welcome – sorry about the explosion…

Prologue

O
N THE FIFTH FLOOR
of one of Britain’s biggest hospitals, in a stark and sterile room, lies an unconscious man.

He’s suffering from concussion and has been unconscious for a day and a half. The doctors, if pushed, demur a little in that way so beloved of the medical profession, but estimate he’ll probably come round in a day or two.

Which is just as well. Because the man has a great many questions to answer.

His name is Dan Groves and he’s a television reporter. He specialises in covering crime, and has just been involved in the biggest and most extraordinary case he has ever known, one which is now drawing attention from around the world.

At his bedside sit two women, one on either side. The woman to the left is a little older than Dan, the woman to the right a little younger. They are both waiting for him to come round. They have sworn to stay here, day and night, hour to hour and minute by minute, for as long as it takes.

The woman on the left wants to thank Dan for what he’s doneand the courage he’s shown, remarkable for a man who in the rare moments of real honesty acknowledges himself an inveterate coward. The other woman wants a great many things, but, in simple summary, if time were limited and were she given only three words, she wants to tell Dan she loves him.

There is a policeman keeping watch outside the door of the room, but after all that has happened over the past few days the women cannot trust him. He is a young man and appears kind and genuine, but he is a part of the establishment, a symbol of authority, and after what they have experienced the women will never again put their faith in the reassurances of the state.

The women are effectively on guard duty. Occasionally, one may leave to fetch a cup of coffee, buy a sandwich, or just stretch their legs and get some air, but never both together. They have agreed that one will always be alongside Dan until he wakes, however long that may take.

For both the women know there are some powerful and ruthless people who may want to harm Dan for what he has done.

On a table, by the side of the bed, is a photograph of an Alsatian dog, which the younger woman has brought from Dan’s flat, and a pile of newspapers. There are broadsheets and tabloids and even a couple from other countries. The headlines are all of the same story and each speaks of shock and scandal, terrorism, murder, treason, conspiracy, spies, and a breathtaking cover-up.

Each also mentions Dan, carries his photograph – an awkward-looking official pose with the standard forced smile – and speculates about his role in bringing the scandal to light. And each raises the same question. How could he possibly have had any part in doing so when he was resolutely unconscious in a hospital bed when the news broke, and has remained that way as the story tumbled, flared, fired and flamed?

There is a television on the wall. The picture is on, but the sound is turned down. The chosen channel is dedicated to 24-hour news. The story is the same as that covered in all the papers. A reporter is standing outside the House of Commons, talking about the discussion taking place there. A caption below reads
Bombing Cover Up Emergency Debate.

At the hospital’s main entrance is gathered a press pack. Cameramen, photographers and reporters, some thirty in number. They’re all waiting for Dan. Every few hours a doctor will walk out from the automatic doors, stride over and give a progress report. Of late, the doctor has joked that it’s more like a lack of progress report. The patient is still stable, still doing well, but still steadfastly unconscious.

The moment turns. In the narrow, austere, bed Dan twitches, mutters, and shifts onto his side. Now, both the women stand. They bend over him and wait expectantly. The younger woman runs a hand over his head. His skin is flushed and hot and his hair is damp. He fidgets once more, but does not wake.

The women sit back down and exchange a brief half-smile. These small movements have happened several times before. He must be dreaming, they say. They talk a little more about how he is looking and agree there is sign of improvement, but their conversation is short. Over the past day and a half of vigil they have run out of things to talk about.

Dan sleeps on. He’s a carefree passenger on the train of dreams, just as the women suspected. At least, he thinks he’s dreaming. Because all that is going through his mind is surely too unbelievableto be anything approaching reality.

Chapter One

T
HE SUNSHINE COUNTY OF
Devon had come to be Dan’s home for a pleasant host of reasons. There were the wonderfully mundane that most would instantly identify; the beauty of the unspoilt countryside, the green hills, soft sand beaches, rugged moors and, of course, the cream teas.

In fact, it was sometimes difficult to convince outsiders that people in Devon and Cornwall ate anything much else.

There were other reasons too – the mild climate, lack of pollution, tranquillity, even the simple delight of being able to see the diamond spectacle of the night sky. But for Dan, suffering the inevitable ailment of slowly growing older, there was another resonant benefit. He had watched with horror the suicide bombings in America and London and so many other places; and the weekly procession of news stories as the police and security services broke up yet another ring of extremists dedicated to the twin charming aims of suicide and genocide.

For a man slipping into his forties, Devon felt a whole lot safer than almost anywhere else in the world.

So today’s terrorist bombing, here in the beautiful backwater county, came as one of the greatest shocks of his life. And even then, the attack itself was to be only a small fraction of the tangled story he would be sucked into, and which would lead him to question so much of the society of which he was a part.

But all that was for later. The day, an ordinary Monday, began in anunusuallyentertaining way.Dan had never been inside a brothel before – honestly, he insisted to the police officers he was working with, he really hadn’t – so it was certainly an interesting experience.

He sat with Nigel, his cameraman, in the half light of the back of the police van, as they listened to the briefing on the raid.

And in another quiet corner of peaceful Devon, the real story, the one which would dominate the country for the coming days, began to unfold.

The great western face of the historic building loomed ahead. Just a few more yards to go. Just a few more minutes until martyrdom and paradise.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about Mum.

The rucksack shifted on his back and the glass bottles clinked together. The young man hesitated, angled his head and listened hard. There was no hissing or fizzing, none of the telltale sounds that said the explosion was imminent, the packed shrapnel of the hundreds of nails about to shriek towards their targets.

Not yet.

No one was watching. There was nothing to see. He was just another fellow human, taking a stroll, eating an ice cream, and enjoying the weather.

But he had a secret.

He walked carefully on. It wasn’t worth checking the bottles again, as he had so many times now on this final journey, rearranging the football kit carefully wrapped around them. His favourite yellow goalkeeper’s shirt which he’d brought for luck, the gloves, shorts and old socks too.

And luck had been with him. He was almost at the target.

The sun was in his eyes, making him squint. Across the green, a woman called to some children.

She was throwing a ball to two young boys. He followed its looping passage through the warm air, and remembered the instructions. Repeated them to himself.

He must try not to kill any children. It was good if one or two were injured, but it was better if none were killed.

Wounded children taught this foul society a finer lesson. See them scream. Feel their suffering. Dead parents, wounded children. That was the ideal. It was what the infidels deserved.

He walked on. The sun dipped behind the great towers of ancient stone.

A tolling bell chimed out its welcome.

The beckoning doors slid open.

He walked on.

*    *    *

‘It’s nice and simple,’ grunted the wizened sergeant, who was evidently enjoying himself. ‘We smash in the door and arrest anyone in the place. Good old-fashioned police work.’

The half dozen officers around them donned riot helmets and checked stab vests and body armour. Nigel glanced down at his own attire. He was wearing jeans and an old jumper, neither of which looked likely to deflect any kind of attack, let alone one with a knife.

‘Feeling underdressed for the occasion?’ Dan whispered. His friend nodded, tussling his dishevelled greying hair. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll just follow them in. If there’s trouble, pick the biggest cop you can find to hide behind.’

Nigel managed a tight smile. Despite all his years on the road, at least ten more than Dan, he still grew a little nervous before the action of a story.

It was a few minutes after noon on a sunny mid September day. They were parked on a tree-lined street in the Stonehouse area of Plymouth. Just around the corner was the brothel, apparently busily at work despite the hour. Dan couldn’t stop himself wondering about the psyche of the kind of men who found themselves in need of sex while others were thinking more about sandwiches.

He found himself looking forward to meeting them.

Dan’s years of experience of crime reporting had taught him that every English police force must carry out monthly crackdowns, as if this was one of the most important lessons drilled into senior officers at their training schools. Much of it was inspired by public relations, to create the impression of policing progress, even if the reality was that life returned to illicit normality usually only a few hours after the campaign ended. So far this year the targets had included underage drinking, driving while using a mobile phone, the carrying of knives, truancy, car-tax evasion, and quite a few others which had slipped into the dusty oblivion of undistinguished history.

September’s chosen suspect for the might of local law enforcement was the sex industry. It promised to be the most media-friendly by far, so Dan had arranged to join a raid. And here they were, amongst a group of Greater Wessex Police officers, about to give some unfortunates a sexual experience they would undoubtedly never forget.

The police team clambered out of the van. A couple of people stood on the pavement, watching. A dog started barking. The officers began jogging around the corner; Dan and Nigel following.

‘Number 19,’ one called, pointing. It was an ordinary, terraced house, carefully painted and maintained, even a bird feeder in the small, paved garden.

Two policemen stepped forward, grasping what looked like a miniature battering ram. Nigel lifted his camera onto his shoulder to film the action. The cops swung the bulky metal. The door thudded, buckled, splintered and cracked, but held. One reached out, kicked at it, then again. Now the lock gave, wrenched open, and they tumbled inside.

A hallway. Cream white, matching carpet. Nicely decorated. A fish tank, golden shapes flitting in opaque water. A pair of easy chairs. Impeccably clean and tidy. Dan vaguely thought how well-presented modern brothels were. Perhaps the plague of Health and Safety legislation reached even here. Illicit and illegal sex might abound, with all the hazards to health that entailed, but there must be no risk of the customers or staff tripping on a loose floorboard.

A couple of screams drifted down the stairs. The officers were running up, in a line. Nigel panned the camera to follow them. Heavy feet thudded on the floorboards, doors opened and closed amidst muffled shouting.

‘Shall we follow them?’ Nigel asked. Dan was tempted, but shook his head. ‘Not much point. The pictures might be good for a porn film, but imagine the whinging letters if we showed them on the daytime news. A couple more shots of people being led out – when they’re suitably clothed – will do us.’

He sat down on one of the soft chairs. Nigel stayed standing, camera trained on the stairs. At his side, Dan noticed a board detailing the services on offer and their respective prices. Some he had never heard of, but happily whoever ran the brothel had anticipated that and thoughtfully provided rough diagrams. Dan blinked hard. Far from enjoyable,several looked extremely painful.

A couple of men in dark suits stepped down the stairs, saw the camera and instantly covered their faces. Unfortunately, that had the effect of highlighting the wedding rings each wore. Both the men’s shirts were mostly unbuttoned, revealing mats of dark hair, and one had the flies of his trousers still open. They shouted some abuse at Nigel.

‘Good afternoon,’ Dan chirped in reply, and received a tirade for his trouble before the men were led off to the police van. He couldn’t blame them. The bashing down of the front door must have been one of the most savage forms of
coitus interruptus
. Combine that with being hauled from your expensive bed of lust by a police officer, and then finding a television camera downstairs, the day must surely be a contender for
The Worst of Life So Far
award.

The men would be watching the news tonight with trepidation bordering on hysteria. He wouldn’t show their faces, but they didn’t need to know that. Years of alleged evolution and civilization had in no way diminished the irresistible allure of schadenfreude.

Dan sat back down and grinned to himself. It was proving to be an unusually pleasant Monday.

The door swung open and the young man stepped inside, blinking hard to accustom his eyes to the long shadows of the half light.

It was cool and quiet here. Conversations were whispered and footsteps soft. Reverence filled the calm air. The faint smell of candle smoke lingered. His rucksack shifted. The bottles clicked and clinked once more.

It didn’t matter now. There were just seconds left.

His body was shaking. He wiped the gathering sweat from his face with a sleeve.

The space was cavernous, even more so than he remembered. He passed under a fluted arch. Symmetric spans of dull white stone. Angels looking down from the heavenly host. Blossoming flowers hung in freshly shaped sprays. His feet shuffled over the smooth and worn flagstones. Some pitted with long forgotten names, dedications, much love and so many memories. Past the tower of the organ, dark carved wood with pyramids of pipes, shining dull in the twilight.

Standards hanging in regimented rows. Union jacks, the red and white of Saint George, the navy and yellow of the Royal British Legion.

An agonised Christ on his gleaming cross. And a dark oil painting, worshippers and adorers attending the new born Lord.

All with eyes watching the young man as he edged past.

An alcove and a black rack of fat red candles. A haze of winding air with every one aflame, careful notes inscribed beneath.

For Joyce, forever loved and missed. For Andrew, in my prayers always. To my darling Chrissie, please come back to me again. Bert, you were my faithful friend always – thank you. To the Simms, eternally in our thoughts.

A taper flickered, gathered, faltered and died.

A smiling saint in a wall of stained glass waved a welcome and proclaimed that God loved him. The beaming sun cast rainbows on the ground. Augustine and Ambrose, Peter and Paul, Gregory and Jerome, all reached out to him in their reds, greens and golds, offering help on this long journey to find salvation.

He hesitated and gulped hard.

There weren’t as many people here as he had hoped. Most were outside, sitting on the green, enjoying the warmth of the weather.

But there were enough.

Find a corner. A confined space amplifies the explosion. Maximises the carnage. And the sacred message.

A corner with a group of people.

The young man started walking again.

His steps were slower now.

He kept thinking about his mum.

And that he would never play football again.

Never wear the precious lucky gloves, patched up and held together with tape. Never patrol the pitted and muddy goal. Never feel the hands upon his shoulders to congratulate him on another save. Never know that hour and a half of pure, heady acceptance.

Be a vital part of the happy team. And of this society. As he had so longed to be.

Until he was shown another way.

The pure way.

The right way.

As he told himself. Again and again.

But the young man’s footfall faltered. Each step grew slow and heavy. And breathless.

He clutched at the hard wooden certainty of a pew. Studied the line of kneelers, embossed with birds and flowers. Nuthatch and yellowhammer, water lily and rose. Tapped at a Book of Common Prayer with an unsteady trainer. Harder now. Watched it slip from the pile and fall open on the stone.

And he waited.

Now a noise. Footsteps. He half turned. Ready for the uniforms. The shining buttons. The faces of authority. The commanding words. The handcuffs.

And wondered whether he’d welcome them.

His eyes focused through the creeping tears. A couple walked past, lost in their tunnel of love. They didn’t waste a glance, cuddled together, moving onwards.

The woman was wearing a short skirt, light denim, riding with the easy rhythm of her stride, showing off the long lines of her tanned legs. A spray of freckles on her thigh.

Even here, even in this place they called sacred, their whores couldn’t cover up their flesh.

It was a sign. They must pay for their sins.

They deserved it. He repeated the words, over and over again.

They deserved it.

Ahead was a corner. Some display boards. This great holy edifice throughout the long ages. The foundation and rise. Its thousand years standing. The struggle through the Reformation. The fears and raids and bomb damage of the Second World War.

And a group of people.

A young girl with a blonde rope of pony tail, clutching a shoulder bag in the shape of a puppy. Wearing a T-shirt of the Eiffel Tower, pulling up knee socks, now texting.

A knot of men and women with cameras at their faces. They’re exchanging quiet words with Midlands accents. A fiftieth birthday party tonight. For Uncle Frank, in a local hotel. A slide show of photographs of his childhood. A woman is looking forward to remembering how they all used to be. A man prefers the idea of the buffet and free bar. He gets a dig in the ribs for his thoughts, but also a ripple of laughter.

An older woman, leaning on a stick, studies a guide book of Devon. She pulls her cardigan a little tighter around her chest. From her bag edges a theatre ticket. It’s packed amongst a lipstick, a compact, an embroidered handkerchief and a bag of cat treats.

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