“I wasn't sure you'd agree to see me,” I tell Tim, struggling to keep my composure as I sit in the prison's visiting room. “I thought perhaps you'd have reconsidered after your letter, and that you wouldn't dare show your face.”
Sitting on the other side of the table, with his hands cuffed to bars on the chair, Timothy Ashford-Clarke stares at me with horrified, tear-filled eyes. He's wearing a regulation prison uniform, and his hair has been shaved short, and there's a nasty-looking cut slowly healing on his left cheek. It's only a few weeks since I first met him, but there are heavy bags under his eyes and he looks twenty years older. The lighting in here might not be very flattering, but it's clear that his time in prison has left him shattered.
That's no less than he deserves.
“I need to know what you did to her,” I continue. “At first I didn't want to hear the details. Then I thought I should know the basics. Then I realized that if I'm going to help her get over it, I need to know everything. I'd hoped I could wait until your trial, but I'm afraid time has rather caught up to me. I need to know now.”
I pause, feeling another shudder of anger rippling through my chest. I want to go around this table and punch him square in the jaw.
“What did you do to my daughter?” I ask finally, leaning forward. “Tell me!”
He stares at me for a moment, before slowly starting to shake his head. His whole body seems to be shuddering.
“Are you still pretending it wasn't you?” I continue. “Is that it? Are you so cowardly and weak that you can't even face up to your own crimes?”
“Winifred,” he stammers finally, “please, you have to believe me, Katie was never -”
“Don't say her name!” I snap, filled with a sudden burst of fury. “Don't you ever say her name again! Do you understand? You don't have the right to say her name!”
He opens his mouth to reply, but at first no words come out.
“You have to understand,” he continues after a few seconds. “They're accusing me of doing the most awful things, Winifred. Not just to Katie... I mean, not just to your daughter, but to other girls too. One of them was just a child, but they say they have evidence. They say they have D.N.A. that proves I did these things, and witness statements, but none of that can be true! I never hurt anybody in my life! Please, you must know that's true! I'm not a monster!”
“I know liars disguise themselves very well,” I tell him. “I was strongly advised not to come here today, and I half-expected your lawyers to block my visit. Perhaps they weren't paying attention.”
“Did you read my letter?”
“It went straight into the bin.”
“You have to believe me,” he continues, “I never, ever hurt any of those girls!”
“I need to know what you did to Katie.”
“I didn't do anything to her!” he says firmly, as tears run down his cheeks. “I swear, as God is my witness, that I never laid a hand on any of them. All this stuff about a torture chamber in my basement is just... It's not true. None of it can possibly be true! I'm being set up. I don't know who by, or why, or what they want from me, but somebody somewhere is trying to destroy me! They're trying to tear me down and make me look like a beast!”
“And why would anyone want to do that?” I ask.
“I don't know, but you have to help me! Ask Katie to testify on my behalf!”
“Are you serious?”
“She knows I wasn't the one who kidnapped her!”
“On the contrary, she says it
He shakes his head.
“She says you held her down there in chains,” I continue, “and hurt her. I need to know precisely what you did, Mr. Ashford-Clarke, because right now she's in a psychiatric hospital and I've run out of ways to get through to her. She's sinking into her own misery and pain, I'm losing her again and I don't know how to bring her back. If you have even the faintest shred of decency left in your body, you'll tell me everything.”
“Annabelle believes me,” he replies.
I furrow my brow. “What?”
“She came to see me,” he continues. “Just a couple of days ago, in fact. She was sitting right where you are now. I told her everything and she gets it, she knows that the charges against me are false. She promised to do everything she can!”
“Good luck with that,” I mutter. “The last I heard, she'd been let go by the tabloid rag that employed her.”
“They're accusing me of the most awful things,” he adds, sounding a little breathless now. “Have you seen it all? They think I kept several girls down in that basement, subjecting them to torture and worse, and that I dumped their bodies in the river. They think that's what I'd have done to Katie, too, if she hadn't managed to break free and start shouting for help. I swear, Winifred, none of that is even remotely true!”
“What did you do to her?” I ask, ignoring his pathetic pleas for help. “For her sake, I have to know!”
“They say I had the basement divided in two,” he continues. “They say I built a partition wall, and I soundproofed it, but none of that is true. Just a few hours before I left the house to go with you and Annabelle on that final day, I took some boxes down to the basement. There was nothing there! No partition, no torture chamber, no -”
“Are you calling my daughter a liar?” I snap.
“She must be confused. She -”
“She saw you!” I hiss. “She saw your face every day while she was down there! She told the police that you taunted her!”
“Then she must be delusional.” He sighs. “I'm sorry, please... I just mean that she must have false memories. It's the only explanation. She's wrong!”
“And the police too? Are they just making up all the evidence against you?”
“The chamber in your basement? Did the police construct that in a couple of hours while we were out, just to make you look bad?”
“Yes!” he says firmly, before sighing again. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but someone did all those things. I accept that this is difficult to believe, but I swear it's all true!”
“And you expect me to believe that?”
“All I know is that I'm going to be appearing in court, charged with all these awful things, and even my lawyers don't think I have a chance of being acquitted. They keep telling me to take a plea deal. They say I should just admit what I did and hope that the court shows a little mercy. It doesn't matter what I tell them, or how many times I insist I'm innocent... Every scrap of evidence condemns me! If I was looking at this case from the outside,
assume I was guilty too!”
“Because you are!”
“Because I'm being framed!”
I get to my feet. Suddenly the thought of spending another moment in this room is too much for me to handle, and it's clear he's not going to budge.
“Annabelle says they're using me as a scapegoat,” he continues, as his voice trembles with fear. “She's looking into it, and she promised to come back some time next week. I'm going to plead not guilty at the trial, and Annabelle's going to see if she can find anything I can use to prove my innocence. Maybe if you talk to her, you could -”
?” I ask, already feeling exhausted. “If she thinks you're innocent, she must be deluded, and I most certainly have no intention of getting dragged back into that mess.”
“But if she can prove it,” he stammers, clearly clinging to some deluded hope, unable to face the truth about what he did to those girls, “won't you at least
the possibility that I'm being framed? I'm a good man, Winifred, but I'm being treated like a common criminal! People are talking here in the cells, they've heard about the accusations. I don't feel safe, but nobody's willing to listen to me! They keep talking about that fifteen-year-old girl who went missing, the one I'm accused of killing. Winifred, I'm not a murderer!”
I stare at him for a moment, and for a moment I catch myself feeling a smidgen of pity for him. After all, he seems so desperate to proclaim his innocence, despite the vast weight of evidence that has been lined up against him. Perhaps when a man does such awful things, he has to hide the truth from himself, and I wouldn't be surprised if he genuinely believes everything he's telling me. After a couple of seconds, however, I feel disgusted by my own reaction, and I force myself to remember everything he's done to my poor Katie.
“I came to see you today,” I say as calmly as I can manage, “because I thought you might show some remorse, and because I thought perhaps you'd help me to help my daughter. Now it's clear that you're incapable of such things, and that I've wasted my time. I can only hope that you'll reconsider your decision to protest your innocence in court, so that Katie doesn't have to endure the trauma of testifying. She's already so fragile and damaged, and I'm worried she'll be pushed over the edge.”
Tears are streaming down his face now. “Winifred, please...”
“Don't make her testify. Please. I'm begging you.”
“I can't plead guilty! I didn't do it!”
“Of course you did,” I tell him, before turning and heading to the door. “You can't expect anyone to believe that torturous conspiracy nonsense you're peddling. You're starting to sound like Annabelle.”
I knock, and a moment later the guard slides the door open to let me out.
“You have to listen to me!” Tim shouts. “They've set me up! They're pinning this on me when the real monster is still out there!”
The door slides shut again. I can still hear him ranting and shouting, but I no longer have any interest in what he has to say. This prison feels utterly suffocating, to the extent that I feel I desperately need to get some fresh air. Coming here today was a long-shot, but I still held out hope that Tim might be able to admit to his crimes. Now my only hope is that the doctors at the psychiatric hospital can find some way to help my poor girl. If she doesn't start to show signs of improvement soon, I fear she'll be lost forever.
Taking a deep breath, I walk away.
“You have to believe me!” Tim is yelling in the distance. “I'm innocent! Winifred, come back! I'm innocent!”
“You mustn't blame yourself,” Milly tells me as I bring tea over to the kitchen table. “They'll know what to do with her at the hospital. They can work wonders these days, and soon they'll have Katie up and about again. Just wait and see.”
“I only hope she can forgive me,” I reply, pouring us each a cup. “You should have heard the way she was screaming. It was almost as if some kind of wild animal had taken control of her. I don't think I shall sleep a wink tonight, not with that sound echoing in my memory.”
“It's not really her,” she continues. “Not when she's like that.”
“That's what I'm afraid of,” I mutter, glancing at the TV as it plays silently in the corner. “What if she never -”
Stopping suddenly, I see that the screen shows a reporter standing outside the prison at Kentonville, and there's a Breaking News banner flashing in the bottom left corner. Concerned, I grab the remote control and quickly turn the volume up.
“What's wrong?” Milly asks. “Winifred? You look like you've seen a ghost!”
“Prison officials aren't saying,” the reporter explains. “We might not get confirmation of that until the morning. As you can imagine, they're being very cagey right now.”
“Chris Mulhollis, thank you for joining us,” the news anchor says as the camera cuts back to the studio. “If you're just joining us, a reminder of the breaking news that's been coming in over the past few minutes. Timothy Ashford-Clarke, the sixty-nine-year-old London landlord awaiting trial for murder and kidnapping, has been found dead in his cell this evening, following an apparent altercation with another inmate at Kentonville Prison in Sussex. Prison chiefs are so far refusing to comment on speculation that Mr. Ashford-Clarke was targeted by a group of fellow inmates due to the nature of the allegations against him. In recent days, fresh information has been released to the media regarding claims that Timothy Ashford-Clarke was behind the disappearance and murder of fifteen-year-old Tiffany Redmond, as well as five other deaths and the kidnapping of Catherine Wren.”
“They killed him,” I whisper, watching as the TV shows footage of an ambulance driving slowly away from the hospital. A shudder runs through my chest as I realize that he must have died just an hour or two after my visit.
“I know I shouldn't say this,” Milly says, “but good riddance, if you ask me. I don't see why honest folk should have to pay to keep scum like that fed and watered for the rest of their lives. There are different types of justice. He got the right kind after all.”
The TV reporter starts giving more information, but I feel rather faint as I step around the kitchen table. I can't focus on anything that's being said, or on Milly's occasional interjections, and instead I find myself thinking back to Tim's desperate cries during the visit. And then, just as I'm about to turn to Milly, I feel a rush of nausea. My legs buckle, and I slump down to the kitchen floor.