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Authors: Nick Stone

The Verdict

BOOK: The Verdict
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Nick Stone was born in Cambridge in 1966, the son of a Scottish father and a Haitian mother. His first novel,
Mr Clarinet
, won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel and the Macavity Award for Best First Novel, and was nominated for The Barry Award for Best British Novel.

Mr Clarinet

King of Swords

Voodoo Eyes

COPYRIGHT

 

First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Sphere

 

978-0-7481-1602-7

 

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

Copyright © Nick Stone 2014

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.

 

The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

 

SPHERE

An imprint of

Little, Brown Book Group

100 Victoria Embankment

London, EC4Y 0DY

 

www.littlebrown.co.uk

www.hachette.co.uk

The Verdict

For:

Hyacinth, Dwayne & Aimée, Janice Brown, Colin Bromfield, and Nadine Radford, QC

If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.

Charles Dickens,
The Old Curiosity Shop

 

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

William Blake, ‘A Poison Tree’

 

March 16th, 2011

A few hours before his life went straight to hell, Vernon James was thinking about his father. It wasn’t something he did very often any more, once or twice a year at the most, and that solely out of a grudging sense of obligation. Neither love nor affection came into it.

Tonight, however, he was making an exception. He was in a bind, the tightest of the tight. He was about to give a speech to a roomful of terminal white liberals who hated his guts, and the one he’d written was all wrong. It was a self-congratulatory list of personal accomplishments, completely devoid of heart, soul and everything in-between. It would confirm their worst suspicions about him. It would bomb and he’d get slaughtered.

The previous week Vernon had been named Ethical Person of the Year by the Hoffmann Trust, a liberal umbrella organisation comprising an international collective of campaigners and pressure groups covering everything from the environment to human rights. He was being recognised for his work in Trinidad, the no-go ghettos he’d helped transform into viable, thriving neighbourhoods, as well as the healthcare and education schemes he’d set up for his employees and their families – schemes he’d initially subsidised out of his own pocket. He’d become a hero of sorts to his workers, while to the British media, he was the new-fangled posterboy for ‘Compassionate Capitalism’.

Yet his appointment had been hugely controversial, and reactions to it swift and furious. The award had never gone to a businessman before, let alone a
financier.
Two of the judges had resigned loudly and very publicly. Vernon had beaten out far more suitable people, they argued – an Iranian prisoner of conscience, an anti-government Russian journalist, a woman from Bradford who’d been disfigured with battery acid for campaigning against honour killing. Some had boycotted the ceremony, but the majority had vowed to attend to let Vernon know what they thought of him to his face. And to cap it all the press had decided to cover the event. Despite centuries of consistent progress and civilisation, people still hadn’t lost their appetite for a good public hanging.

Things had moved so fast he hadn’t had time to change what he’d written. And now it was as good as too late. It was zero-sum time and the hour was almost at hand. He had two choices – bail or improvise; flee or fight.

And this was where his father came into it. Vernon decided to go off-script and blindside this well-heeled, braying mob with an exclusive. He was famously – no,
notoriously
– secretive. In the rare interviews he’d given, he offered up little in the way of personal or autobiographical details. Not once had he talked about his family. Journalists and would-be biographers knew better than to probe into his past. He’d ruined three careers and brought down one publishing house with libel suits. The upside had been that he kept his past buried. Yet the downside, as he’d recently discovered, was that people found it easy to loathe him because they knew next to nothing about him. They took the scrappy personal sketch he’d allowed into the public domain – that he was a Cambridge-educated, former banker of early 1990s vintage, who’d established a hugely successful hedge fund, which had made him one of the richest people in the country – and filled in the blanks with their own skewed projections; an association game that saw him the centre of a montage of left-wing hate figures – Thatcher, Reagan, Murdoch, Bush the Second, Dick Cheney et al. He was a multi-millionaire banker, therefore
C
onservative, therefore
E
vil.

He was going to try and prove them wrong.

 

Showtime imminent.

He checked himself in the bathroom mirror one last time. He spritzed his breath with freshener to kill the vodka fumes. He was OK. He’d only had a couple. He felt good, confident.

There was a knock on the door.

It was a maid. Short and slim, Eurasian features. Not bad-looking, but not his type.

‘Turndown service, sir?’

What was that accent? American via somewhere Baltic? He couldn’t tell.

‘No thanks,’ he said.

‘Have a good evening, sir.’

He reached into his pocket and peeled a tenner off his clip and gave it to her. She beamed. She’d done nothing to deserve it, but he was now officially in nice-guy mode.

 

The ceremony was being held in the main banqueting room of the Blenheim-Strand, the hippest hotel in London, thanks to film-star patronage and drooling write-ups. Vernon had booked himself into Suite 18, on the twelfth floor, the main selling point of which was a panoramic view of the South Bank and the city beyond. Not that he’d had the time or space to take it in, let alone appreciate it. He’d been too busy staring defeat in the face and trying not to blink.

 

He took to the stage to a meagre drizzle of applause, more desultory pats of the palms than fully formed claps. There were some two hundred people in the room, but it sounded like no more than a dozen, with slightly under half bothering to acknowledge him.

Vernon set the prize – a large capital ‘E’ in solid blue-tinted glass, with his name engraved on the brass plinth – to one side of the microphone lectern. He looked out over the space in front of him, the battlefield, already crackling with opening salvos in the form of inchoate grumbles. He could clearly make out the first couple of rows and the faces around the tables. Beyond that were shadows and silhouettes. A few camera flashes went off.

He cleared his throat and started to speak. He wasn’t using notes or an autocue. He’d memorised the whole thing.

‘They say awards never go to the right people. And for once they have a point. I don’t deserve this.’

He was expecting a reaction of some kind, angry accord at the very least. But no one said a thing. It was so quiet he heard the microphone hum.

He was glad he’d had those few drinks before. Two double vodkas in his room upstairs after he’d run through his speech for the final time, a couple more discreet ones during dinner. While it didn’t make him bolder or lighten the immensity of the task before him, it had blunted his fear and loosened him up a little.

He began by complimenting and commiserating with the runners-up. He commended their individual achievements. He’d researched them all thoroughly.

He told the audience things about his co-nominees only a genuine admirer could have known. He got a quick shower of applause from the edges of the room, but it was swallowed up by the cavernous quiet.

Vernon appeared nervous and spoke haltingly at first. This was, of course, deliberate, all part of the plan. As was the voice he was using – what he sometimes referred to as his ‘rags to riches brogue’.

It was a Caribbean-tinged variant of the Estuary accent he’d deliberately shed on his eighteenth birthday but wasn’t above revisiting whenever the occasion called for it. Tonight the same accent was serving to remind the audience that he wasn’t just a racial minority, but of working-class stock too – two kinds of the very person they loved to defend and celebrate more than their own.

It wasn’t the only adjustment he’d made. Although a tall, handsome man gifted with that mixture of magnetism and charisma commonly referred to as ‘presence’, he knew how to turn it off and play humble.

He’d spent the first third of his career having to impress people in one way or another to get what he wanted. Now that he’d long surpassed those initial goals, he had to make a different kind of impression – to appear to be living down his success. That was, after all, the British way. Fake modesty, faker self-deprecation.

He moved on to talk about his work in the West Indies. In-between describing his semi-philanthropic endeavours he took sharp, distancing swipes at sweatshop culture, the evil of child labour, and the corporate exploitation of the Third World. That was delivered with a sudden burst of passion that took the room aback, and made him sound sincere.

It earned him an enthusiastic round of applause. At least half the audience was on its feet. There were even a couple of ‘
Bravos!
’ thrown in. He paused an instant and took stock. He was still far from winning over the crowd, but their antagonism was on hold. Their preconceptions were crumbling. They were there for the taking.

Now for the critical moment…

            The mother…

         
No.

The
father
lode.

He was about to resume when he sensed he was being stared at.

Yes, sure,
everyone
was looking at him, and a couple of TV cameras were trained on him too, but this was a very
specific
kind of stare. A stare that was calling out to him, clamouring for his attention; a stare that wanted to be met.

He cleared his throat and took a sip of water, using the pause to glance, quickly, to his right, into the pull of the stare.

And that was when he first clapped eyes on his fate; his absolute undoing:

Six feet of long tall blonde in a tight, figure-hugging, bottle-green dress.

He had a clear view of her. Her and her ample cleavage, her dark circumflex eyebrows, high cheekbones and smiling mouth. To say that she stood out in that drab crowd in their limp suits and interchangeable black dresses was an understatement. She was a phosphorescent rainbow in a monochrome desert.

She was sitting at the very front, her chair positioned close to the stage. Chin cupped in her hand, she gazed up at him intently, her hazel eyes finding his. Her dress was split at the side, exposing her leg from ankle to lower thigh. There was a tattoo on her ankle. He searched her hand for a wedding ring, and then remembered his own, glinting in the spotlight.

The sight of her emboldened him. And the booze gave him another boost.

‘I said earlier that I’ve always believed in people. Well, I learned that from my father, Rodney James,’ he said, launching the pivotal part of his speech.

He recounted how his father had come to England from Trinidad in the early 1960s. He described the terraced house he’d grown up in in Stevenage; the four of them – his parents, his older sister Gwen and him – sharing two rooms in the basement. Although Rodney had felt unwanted in this new country, he’d absolutely refused to be beaten. He’d worked two jobs: a window cleaner by day and a hospital porter by night. Vernon said that when he was ten, he made three decisions about his future – the first, that he’d work as hard as his father did; the second, that if he ever reached a position of authority over people, he’d make sure no one he employed would ever live as his family did then. People deserved dignity above all else.

That won him a huge round of applause – which sounded unanimous, and thoroughly surprised him. He briefly lost his train of thought.

So he thanked the audience with bashful humility. And then he told them the third vow he made back then – never to eat tinned pilchards in tomato sauce again. His family, he explained, were so poor it was all they had to live on.

That brought the house down. People laughed. People clapped. People whooped! People table-thumped. No one was against him any more. The tide had well and truly turned.

He stole a quick glance at The Blonde. She was still there, looking at him in wonder, hands clasped together. Their eyes connected. Her lips were moving. She was mouthing something to him. But he couldn’t linger long enough to make out what it was. Empowered by his success, the mounting blaze in his groin and with the vodka greasing his wheels, he carried on with his speech.

Fifteen years after he first arrived in England, Rodney James opened his own business – a newsagent’s directly opposite the railway station. As it was the only one in the immediate area, it did great business. The family were able to move out of the basement, and, for a while, life was good.

Of course, Vernon said, his voice (deliberately) cracking, like all good things, it wasn’t to last. Isn’t happiness, after all, but a short stopover on a long sad road?

In May 1989, as Rodney was closing the shop for the night, he was robbed and stabbed. He bled to death right there on the floor of a place that had been his pride and joy, his greatest achievement and a testament to his hard work and determination to overcome all obstacles.

Vernon concluded by saying that he thought of his father every day, and that everything he did and had done and would continue to do was always in his memory – the most ethical person he had ever known.

He ended with a simple ‘Thank you’.

The room erupted in applause and cheers. The lights went up. The room rose to its feet in ovation. He saw a few tears being wiped off cheeks.

He stepped back from the microphone and savoured the applause, nodding to the crowd, left, centre and right. The Blonde was on her feet too, clapping, beaming, her breasts bouncing under her dress. Their eyes met again.

‘I love you,’ she mouthed.

People came towards the stage, hands extended. He shook them all, soaking up their compliments, thanking them with humble bows and scrapes.

Yet as the applause rang in his ears, he remembered how things had
really
been when he was growing up. He wasn’t sure if his father turned into a monster after he came to England, or if he had always been that way. It didn’t matter now. Rodney James had served his purpose. The story Vernon had just told was a big lie strained from the smallest truth, but it was a hell of a tale and that was all that mattered.

He waved to his cheering audience, picked up his award and started leaving the stage. He was happy and his heart was pumping. A celebration was in order.

And he desperately wanted to fuck The Blonde
.

But when he turned to look for her, she was gone. The chair she’d sat in empty.

 

Afterwards everyone went to the hotel nightclub. A DJ with red, white and blue dreadlocks played an array of roots reggae, 1970s funk and rap from an amped-up laptop.

The club was called the Casbah. It had a sunken dancefloor, which glowed overlapping shades of turquoise and gold, and a two-tiered seating area, with tables on one level and booths on the next.

BOOK: The Verdict
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