New Year’s Day
Despite the strong current, the body hadn’t travelled far. There’d been a storm – and storm damage – back at the start of December. Uprooted trees had been washed down from upstream, junk of all sorts following in their wake. On the stretch of the River Crow that flowed eponymously through Crowby itself, debris still clogged the banks. And debris had halted the progress of Darren McGee’s corpse, had held it fixed between sodden oak bark and the twisted remains of a rusted mountain-bike.
The Crowby Diehards made the discovery, had called off their famous swim for the first time in their history as a mark of respect. For fifty-one years, they’d gathered at the same spot at the same time. New Year’s Day, Riverside Walk, eight thirty am. Across from the Riverside Hotel and just to the side of the Memorial Bridge. Twenty or so swimmers plus a small crowd of supporters. Their numbers had fluctuated over the years but three of the original members still turned out, still flourished. We wore nowt but swimming trunks in those days, Harold Fletcher, the oldest of them, and not the slowest, was fond of saying. But nowadays, like every other Diehard, he wore a wet suit – while a support team stayed close with a motorised dinghy in case any of them got into difficulties. Even Fletcher conceded that it was common sense. The River Crow was wide and as cold as ice – cold enough for cardiac arrest – cold enough for unconsciousness and death.
Fletcher hadn’t been the first to see it though. That distinction had gone to Gemma Reed – the Diehards’ New Year’s Day swim had long since ceased to be a single-sex tradition – and Gemma Reed had usefully been a probationer, six months uniformed service in. She was working a shopping centre beat, kids nicking fags and dropping litter, but she knew an opportunity when she saw one. Everybody away from the edge except you, Geoff, and you, Keith. Everybody else stay back. Who’s got a mobile handy? Give it here for Christ’s sake. She’d dialled the number and then the three of them had hauled Darren McGee on to the bank. His head had been face down and submerged lower in the water than the rest of his body so that she knew he was dead – at least knew it theoretically – before they’d even touched him. But she remembered her training, remembered her lectures. The pulse-taking and the check with the mirror were what you did first. No matter what. Always. Invariably. The immediate priority is to take what life-saving measures may be necessary or possible. It was only secondly that you thought about preserving a potential crime scene. Thereafter avoid all unnecessary further contact. OK, that’s it, he’s a gonner. Everybody just stand clear till the experts get here. They’d laid him out on the bank and then kept their distance. Establish an interim cordon as soon as possible. It was her first dead body apart from the obligatory training visit to the morgue. But that had been different, had been anticipated, planned for. This was unscheduled, out of the blue, the real thing. She’d had to stay closer than the others of course. They were her mates but they were also civilians. She was the professional: the one who had to keep guard, the one who had to keep looking.
His clothes were wet, green-weeded, yet there was something almost neat about the way they clung to his tall, gangly frame. She knew he hadn’t been in the water for long. There were no bite marks on the face, no sign yet of the head swelling, the trunk bloating. What there was: a welter of bruising, ugly and scarring. Probably from collisions with rocks and the remains of trees, or maybe from hitting the bridge supports if that was the way he’d gone in. And as she’d stood watching, something foul and slug-like had crawled out of his left nostril. Oh Jesus, please don’t let me be sick.
Wednesday April 20th
Chief Inspector Jacobson left his office on the dot of six o’clock, glad to be going. His cases right now were routine, low-level, tedious. It was one of those interludes when real badness had slipped off the radar, biding its time, drawing its breath. As a citizen, you welcomed its absence. But as a copper, you twiddled your thumbs, rearranged your desk ornaments, watched and waited. He bought a copy of the Evening Argus from the news stand in the pedestrianised square which filled – or compounded – the void between the comforting geometry of the Town Hall and its unlovely neighbours: the Divisional building, the public library-stroke-NCP multi-storey, the pimply, unwashed rear of the shopping centre.
"There’s nothing in it, mate," the vendor told him despondently.
It wasn’t the best sales technique Jacobson had ever witnessed. He pocketed his change and folded the paper under his arm. He was headed across the square in the direction of Silver Street, the fastest route he knew to the dark, smoky interior of the Brewer’s Rest.
There were daffodils blooming in the floral borders and overhead the early evening sky was irritatingly blue. To the conventional mind, spring was a Good Thing, a harbinger, something to be looked forward to after the grey months of an English winter. But Jacobson had never really cared for it, thought that it was probably his least favourite season. The sudden brightness of the days startled you like an alarm clock you’d forgotten had been set. And there was too much that was transitional about it, too much that was uncertain. You never knew whether to grab your coat or leave it at home. You never knew whether the sun would shine or the rain would piss down. How completely and utterly marvellous the season of renewal was, according to the greetings card industry and the more sentimentally-inclined nature poets. Sap rising. New life spilling forth all over the shop. As if there wasn’t enough of the bastarding stuff around already. Bristling, seething, greedy. All of it eating the other bits. Or being eaten by them.
He let Henry Pelling, the Evening Argus’s chief crime reporter, buy him a drink. The quid pro quo was a wary, mutual update that consisted of not very much on either side. But then Pelling’s regular work cronies poured in, brimming over with office politics and professional jealousies. Although the Argus was located out at the Waitrose complex these days, the journos preferred to be downtown of an evening. There was a new face amongst them. Male, twenty-something, smartly-dressed. Jacobson paid him no more attention than he did the others except to clock that he was black. Rationally and intellectually, Jacobson was the precise opposite of a racist. But he’d still lived all his life as a white man in England. The labels of his school shirts had proclaimed Made In The British Empire. He still noticed Otherness, couldn’t not do. Scrupulously, he ordered another Guinness for Pelling and then extricated himself to a quiet corner with his second pint.
The Brewer’s Rest was selling genuine Czech Budweiser on draft now – a brew not to be confused, in Jacobson’s view, with the better-known ‘Bud’ favoured by teenage hoodlums and no-taste Yanks. It was a significant compensation in the face of the BR’s latest measures – karaoke, a big screen Playstation – to weather the competition from the fun pubs, sports bars and pole-dancing clubs which seemed to be taking over the night life of the town centre. Jacobson sipped his beer, glanced at the court reports. His B&H packet and his silver lighter were secure inside his jacket pocket and he was making an attempt – with how much seriousness remained to be seen – to leave them that way as much of the time as possible. The figure might have been standing there whole minutes before he finally glanced up, took it in that somebody wanted to speak to him.
"Chief Inspector Jacobson?" Pelling’s new arrival asked.
Not nervously exactly. More that the speaker was conscious of a level of importance which would attach itself to any further interchange.
"Who wants to know?" Jacobson challenged, taking another sip.
"‘My name is Paul Shaw," Paul Shaw said.
He produced ID from his wallet, passed it over: an NUJ card. It was up-to-date, the genuine article as far as Jacobson could tell without fishing his underused reading glasses out of his spectacle case. He handed it back with his left hand, continued to hold the Argus in his right.
"Old Henry usually introduces his new lads to me personally–"
Shaw had pulled out an empty chair from the table while Jacobson had studied the press card. Now he sat down abruptly, pulled it back in.
"No, Chief Inspector, that’s not it. I’m not with the Argus – I’m freelance, from London. I’ve never even been in Crowby until this last week."
"Congratulations on that score. So why spoil a good track record now?"
Shaw coughed, cleared his throat. His suit didn’t look cheap, neither did his shirt, the collar fashionably open, the top button undone. He placed a laptop case in front of him. The kind that held the computer secure but still left ample room for other essential stuff: documents, mobile phones, sandwiches from Prêt a Manger. He unzipped a compartment, produced an Argus of his own, held up the front page. It was an old copy from earlier in the year. January the something was all that Jacobson could make out for the date without his specs. He really needed to get into the habit of wearing them when he was reading. But at least he could see the headlines without any difficulty. New Year’s Day Tragedy: Drowning Was Suicide, says coroner.
Paul Shaw smiled the way you did when your cat had just died or your wife had just left you for the woman next door.
"I want to tell you about a murder, Chief Inspector. Here in your town. A black man murdered by white racists."
"Darren McGee?" – Jacobson put his own Argus down on the table, didn’t look any closer at Shaw’s – "An unhappy young man to say the least. Mental health problems leading to suicide. DCS Salter himself handled the police investigation."
He drank another mouthful of beer, fell silent. In the age of nanotechnology – cameras and microphones the size of a gnat’s penis – you were careful what you said to the press. Especially press you’d never met before. Shaw kept up his anguished smile.
"I’m aware of the official verdict, Inspector Jacobson. I’ve read the coroner’s report. The transcripts of the hearing as well."
"And they don’t tell the real story. They don’t even get close."
Jacobson thought about knocking the embryonic conversation on the head right there and then. He’d been on annual leave when the young man - yes, the young black man – had been fished out of the River Crow. Fished out dead. Because of his absence, smootharse Greg Salter had assumed the role of senior investigating officer in a suspicious death inquiry for the first time – hopefully the only time – since he’d taken over as Crowby’s chief of detectives. But not even Salter could blunder a case that had been textbook simple. Even though everything had been done and dusted before Jacobson had returned to duty, he’d checked the files as a matter of course. Well he’d done more than that to be honest. There would have been a modest, professional pleasure in pronouncing Salter’s investigation as flawed and incompetent. But the facts had suggested otherwise.
McGee had had some trouble with his neighbours and his workmates it was true. And there had been racism in the mix alright. But the overwhelming factor had been his mental condition. He’d been sectioned more than once, diagnosed as schizophrenic. He’d only fetched up in Crowby in the first place because he was on the trail of a girlfriend who’d given him the elbow, who’d reported him as violent, who’d gone to court for a restraining order. The forensics read the same way, pointed in the same direction. No compelling evidence of injuries sustained before he hit the water. Definitely no evidence of ligatures or weights on the body. Plus the diatoms swimming microscopically in his lungs had matched convincingly to the diatomic population in the stretch of the river where his body had been found.
No, he almost decided, Shaw wasn’t worth listening to. He was either on the make – hungry for a byline regardless of the evidence – or an obsessive, a conspiracy nut. Or quite possibly both. On the other hand, there was hardly a great rush to get home to an empty flat and a Chinese takeaway. Why not hear him out while he finished his pint?
He checked his watch. Then:
"You’ve got five minutes of my time, Mr Shaw. Don’t waste it."
"Darren McGee was my cousin, Mr Jacobson. It’s not a story that I’m after here. It’s the truth – justice. Darren moved to Crowby in November. He was dead in January and he was dealing with racist threats every day in between."
"Every day? That’s as maybe. But racist attitudes were mentioned at the inquest, old son. The coroner criticised those responsible, commented that the hostility Darren McGee experienced was an added stress factor against his mental stability."
Paul Shaw didn’t have a drink with him, didn’t produce any cigarettes, gave the impression that he ran mainly on his own, twitchy energy.
"Especially at the moment he was being thrown off a bridge by racist thugs. Held over then dropped."
Jacobson studied Shaw’s face. He didn’t look like any kind of nutter.
"The only racism that got mentioned at the inquest was just everyday, ignorant harassment," Shaw continued. ‘I’m talking about what got left out. The serious threats that were made against Darren. Really serious ones. Threats that were finally acted on."
"If you’ve studied the evidence like you say, Mr Shaw, then you already know that the forensic team searched the bridge from end to end for any indication that there’d been a struggle, that Darren McGee hadn’t just tipped himself in. Evidence of a scuffle. A significant shoe mark or a tread. They found precisely sod all."
"Maybe they didn’t look closely enough," Shaw countered. "There wasn’t what you might call any political will to get to the truth. Darren’s mental history made it too easy – too tempting – to write his death off as a suicide. I don’t expect your boss, Chief Salter, was over-keen to prove otherwise. It would have meant a lot of hard work and unnecessary bad publicity on his patch to track down the killers."
Jacobson took a deep mouthful of beer. Shaw had evidently mastered the basics of his trade at any rate, had done his homework before he’d made his approach. Not only had Henry Pelling or one of his colleagues pointed Jacobson out for him, they’d also marked Shaw’s card about the non-Love In between Jacobson and Smoothie Greg.
"That’s a serious allegation, Mr Shaw. And one I’m prepared to pretend I didn’t hear. In any case, like I say, there’s not a shred of forensics to back you up."
Paul Shaw smiled politely on.
"Professor Merchant did the post-mortem. From what I hear, the local force are always a lot happier when Peter Robinson’s signature is at the bottom of the report."
Jacobson took another mouthful of beer before he replied.
"Professor Merchant was regarded as one of the half-dozen top forensic pathologists in the country."
"But he hadn’t exactly been very hands-on in recent years, had he?"
Not in the way you mean, old son, Jacobson thought. Something featuring duck from the Yellow River takeaway followed by an hour in the company of a decent book had suddenly regained their appeal. Here he was, in his own free time, stuck with defending the reputation of two of the biggest prats he’d ever had the misfortune to work with.
"Why the sudden interest now anyway?" he asked. "The inquest was in January. Why wait till now if you had concerns to raise?"
"I’ve been busy working on other projects. And I was out of the UK in January. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to look into what actually happened to Darren."
Shaw had started unzipping another one of the compartments in the front of his laptop case. Jacobson glimpsed a wad of documents inside.
"Hold it a minute, old son," he said. "Why tell me all this? Apart from the fact that I’m not DCS Salter’s best mate – which is hardly the scoop of the year."
"‘Because you have a reputation for fair play, Inspector. I thought maybe if I could show you what I’ve found out, you might see a way to reopening the investigation."
Shaw had his pile of documents half-way out of the case. He pulled a single sheet of paper all the way out, placed it down neatly next to Jacobson’s beer glass. The sheet contained a single, typed list. Four first names and four surnames. Jacobson gave the names the barest glance, none of them meant anything to him.
Shaw glanced around the room, as if suddenly remembering he was in a public place. His voice, never loud, lessened to a whisper.
"These are the four who killed him. They threatened him that they’d do it, they promised him they’d do it – and then they did."
Jacobson’s mind replayed the forensic highlights like a mantra: no signs of a struggle, no prior injuries and, most of all, no witnesses.
"These threats were made exactly how?"
"In his face mainly – on the street. Although sometimes they’d call his mobile too. Plus each one of the four’s connected. The far right, you know? I’m not sure with what exactly. Not the BNP or the NF anyway, maybe some new group."
"And you can provide me with corroboration of these threatening incidents?"
Shaw paused, took another look around.
"Not so far. The people I’m speaking to – third parties – they don’t want to go on record. Not yet at least – I’m still working on them."
Not sure. Not so far. Not yet. That capped it. That plus the glancing, whispering and pausing. It had been a mistake after all inviting Shaw to ramble on. The guy seemed normal. But he was evidently as demented as his terminally-wet cousin. Jacobson finished off the rest of his beer in one long, practised gulp.
"This is still a free country, Mr Shaw,’ he said when he’d finished drinking, "despite the best attempts of the Home Secretary. Wander around Crowby as takes your fancy. Contribute to the local economy by all means. But don’t bother me again – unless or until you’ve something more persuasive to offer than a roll-call of lippy local bigots and fantasists."
Jacobson stood up, leaving the sheet of paper where it was on the narrow table. Finally, just in the remote case that Shaw wasn’t bonkers, he took a card out of his inside pocket, placed it on top of the list of names.
"And next time – if there is a next time – try and go through the proper channels, old son. Call me and make an appointment first."
© Iain McDowall, 2005. All rights reserved.