A Carriage of Misjustice (Lindenshaw Mysteries, #5)
Murder doesn't care if you're a newlywed.
Detective Chief Inspector Robin Bright and Deputy Headteacher Adam Matthews have just tied the knot, and all they want to do is sink into blissful domesticity. Unfortunately, there’s no chance of that when a chilling murder at a rugby ground takes Robin miles away to help his old boss solve it.
The mystery seems impossible to crack. Everyone with a motive has an alibi, and those without alibis don’t have a motive. Robin’s determined that this won’t be the case he’s unable to unravel. Not when he’s got his old boss to impress and a new team to lick into shape.
Back at home, Adam joins a fundraising choir to keep himself occupied. Surely a case that’s so far away won’t draw him in this time? Fate has other ideas, though, and danger turns up—quite literally—on his doorstep. He’ll need Campbell the Newfoundland for both company and protection this time around.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Emotional Abuse (slight reference)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Adam Matthews turned his left hand so that his ring caught the light. It was an elegant piece of metalwork, Welsh gold in a chunky, slightly squared-off design, exactly the same as the ring on Robin Bright’s hand. They’d not deliberately chosen an identical pattern for romantic reasons: that was simply how it had worked out. They’d both studied the jeweller’s brochure, both written a list of three favourite choices in order of preference, put the lists into sealed envelopes . . . and opened them to find they’d picked the same one in pole position, with remarkably similar ones in second and third place.
Great minds think alike and all that.
“Are you still admiring your wedding ring?” Robin said, from over the other side of the lounge, where he and Campbell the Newfoundland were having some bonding time. Nothing better than watching the Sunday lunchtime game on the telly, especially when it featured Liverpool against Spurs. Campbell in particular seemed besotted with Harry Kane.
“I’ll never stop admiring it. Even the kids in my class think it’s cool, and they’re hard to please.” Adam took another glance at the ring, then picked up the Sunday paper to flick through the sports pages. He wasn’t really reading, though—it was more of a prop to cover the inane grin that was about to break out all over his face and for which Robin would take the micky out of him. A grin he couldn’t help producing every time he thought about it. The fact that they’d gone and tied the knot at last.
What a day it had been: a small civil ceremony out at a local upmarket pub, the Sporting Chance, with only close family and friends, their mothers wearing enormous hats and looking stunning. But the star of the day had been Campbell, outdoing everyone in terms of style with a white bow tie around his neck and stealing the show as he trotted up the aisle with the rings in a bag—waterproof to avoid the slobber—in his canine jaws. He’d dropped them at Adam’s feet, then returned to sit on a blanket at the back of the room with nonchalant ease, as though this were the sort of thing he did every day. His presence had proved to be a bonus, because when the guests were fussing over the dog, they’d been leaving the groom and groom in peace.
The newlyweds hadn’t gone off on honeymoon, given that Adam couldn’t have got away during term time, so they were saving their leave for a proper holiday later in the year. So just a celebration that weekend, then straight back to school for Adam and the nick for Robin, on Monday morning.
That had caused comment at both workplaces—as had the fact they’d opted for a small, restrained ceremony rather than the big lavish do some people had expected. They’d made it clear that they’d been making a stand against the commercialisation of weddings, believing that so long as there was a ceremony, a photographer, a good meal, and a bit of a knees-up, all boxes had been ticked. Anybody who’d suggested they were being tight wads had got subtly reminded that they’d made sizeable charity donations in the names of those who hadn’t been invited.
Now, they’d been an officially linked couple for all of a week and the sensation still felt as shiny and new as it had the previous weekend.
“I could do with a few weeks to recover from all the excitement. Wha-at?” Robin paused, frowning. “Why are you making that stop it gesture? What’s the problem?”
“Don’t say anything about time to recover. Don’t tempt fate into arranging a surprise Ofsted inspection for me or a cold-case murder that rears its head again and means weeks of you working all hours God sends.” Adam touched the wooden table. He wasn’t really superstitious, but sometimes you were trying to appease your own conscience as much as some nebulous source of fortune, good or bad. Like wearing lucky socks to play sport: your brain tells you it made no difference but your heart won’t believe it.
“Okay. Do you want me to wish that a horrible case drops in my lap on the principle that it’ll ensure life’s nice and quiet?”
Adam grinned. “Don’t say anything. Put your mind to whether we want to have a religious ceremony to go with the civil one.”
“That’s trickier than solving a murder case.”
Both were regular if occasional churchgoers, and both would say they had a degree of faith, although they didn’t make a big thing of it. And both appreciated that only certain parts of the Christian communion wouldn’t turn their noses up at the union between two people of the same gender.
“Would Neil do us a blessing, do you think?” The vicar was pretty broad-minded and he’d never shown any disapproval towards Robin or Adam.
“Privately, maybe. If we asked for something small—smaller than even the wedding was—and maybe not in the church itself. I don’t think he’s got a problem with homosexuals but there are a few folk on the PCC who’d throw their toys out of their prams if they knew we were standing in front of the altar at St. Crispin’s making vows in the presence of God.”
“And the fear of the congregation?” Robin said, which was an old joke if still a relevant one even now.
“Some of them, but that’s inevitable. You know who I’m thinking of.” Like any parish, Lindenshaw had its share of people who would prefer it if there were no women priests, the only prayer book used was the one published in 1662, and everyone lived by the parts of the Levitican law that didn’t apply to them but stopped everyone else having fun. “I remember a few folk getting the hump on when Neil first arrived here and made them share the peace at the ten o’clock communion. They couldn’t have been more outraged if he’d taken the service in drag.”
Robin made the kind of face he produced when he had to clear up after Campbell had relieved himself in the garden. “Sounds like they’re due to be outraged again, then. Shall we make an appointment to see Neil?”
“Works for me. Although he probably can’t do anything till late spring. Lent coming up, and I’ve a feeling the church doesn’t do weddings then. I guess a blessing would come under that umbrella.”
“Our mothers would welcome deferring the event for a while. It would mean they can get new summer hats to go with the winter ones they wore last weekend.” The local milliner must have made a small fortune out of the Matthews and Bright womenfolk.
“Right. Before we start planning any of that, we have work to do this afternoon. Our good deed for the day.”
“So we have.”
The cottage three doors down was owned by a fiercely independent lady in her seventies, whom they’d told that if she ever needed anything done round the house or garden that didn’t need technical skill, just a touch of brawn, she shouldn’t hesitate to call on them. It would have to be serious for her to call in that offer, and the loss of three fence panels in a storm two days previously came into that category. They’d take Campbell—Mrs. Haig doted on him—and the pair could supervise Adam and Robin while they repaired the old panels and shifted them back into place. The fact that Mrs. Haig’s boiled fruit cake was legendary turned an act of kindness into a positive pleasure.
They got into their working clothes and set off.
An hour, a cup of tea, and a large slab of cake later, the old panels were out and the new ones ready to be installed.
“You’re doing a grand job, there,” Mrs. Haig said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“It’s a pleasure. Better than marking books or catching criminals.” Adam gave his husband a wink. “Neither of us take enough exercise.”
“I used to watch you running with Campbell.” She scratched the dog’s ear. “I suppose you’re too busy for that these days.”
“You’re right. We tend to take him for a walk together, don’t we?”
“Yes,” Robin replied. “It makes sure we spend time together too.” They had no need to hide their relationship from their hostess. Her brother was gay, a stalwart of musical chorus lines in London.
“You could join the church choir,” she suggested. “They always need tenors.”
“I’d love to, but I’d always be ringing Martin up to say I couldn’t make the practices. Armed robbery to sort out or whatever.”
Adam hid his grin in his teacup. The choirmaster fancied Robin and barely hid it.
“Yes, I suppose so.” Mrs. Haig frowned. “You work too hard, the pair of you. And here’s me eating into your weekend.”
Adam shook his head. “This isn’t work, it’s play.” And the sight of Robin in an old T-shirt, muscles rippling and working up a sweat was a sight to enjoy. Adam gave him an affectionate glance, which was immediately returned.
“These panels won’t install themselves,” Robin said hastily, perhaps with half a mind on some less strenuous but highly enjoyable activity that could go on later, assuming they weren’t too tired.
An hour later, they were home, tired but happy. Adam cleaned himself up while Robin brushed residual crumbs off the dog, then he could head into the shower while Adam had a well-earned sit-down. As he was getting dressed, Adam thought he heard Robin talking on the phone. Please God it was only Mrs. Bright touching base rather than work calling the bloke in. The fact that Robin wasn’t leaping up the stairs apologising and changing out of his old clothes so he could report for duty had to be a good sign, surely?
“What’s up?” Adam called over the banister, heart sinking when Robin entered the hallway. “Anyone would think you’d lost a tenner and found five pence.”
“Not quite. Not an ideal situation, though.” Robin weighed the phone in his hand like it was a piece of ordnance he’d like to chuck as far away as possible.
“That’s what Brits say when it’s the end of the world.”
Robin grinned. “It’s not as bad as that. I have to go off on secondment, as of tomorrow. Hopefully it’ll be a short one, but you can’t tell with murder. Or with peritonitis.”
Adam made a that’s gone right over my head gesture. “I’m sure that’s supposed to make sense, but you’ve lost me. Secondment to where?”
“Hartwood. It’s a town between Oxford and Birmingham, east of the M40. There was a murder there about ten days ago. Don’t know if you saw the story—bloke found dead in the loos at a rugby club.”
“I was a bit preoccupied last week, if you remember, but yes, I did see the story on the BBC site. Why can’t the local police handle it? Test Valley or East Midlands or whoever covers the area?”
“That’s a long story. Can I come and clean myself up and then I’ll tell you everything?”
“Might be an idea. You’re slightly fragrant.” Adam forced a smile. Going on a secondment? They really shouldn’t have tempted fate.
While Robin showered, Adam pottered about in the kitchen. He always found that a calming place, somewhere he could think clearly. No doubt that was associated with the house having originally been owned by his grandparents: many happy hours he’d spent there as a child, helping his granny to make the Christmas pudding on stir-up Sunday or learning firsthand the way to make a perfect Yorkshire pudding.
As he transferred from fridge to oven a defrosted casserole—courtesy of their domestic help, Sandra, who’d insisted on stocking the freezer when they’d been knee-deep in wedding preparations—Adam cast his mind back to the news story, but nothing much had registered about it. Still, it was easy enough to refresh his memory by researching the story on his phone. By the time he’d followed a few links, he’d built up a reasonable picture. Hartwood Wasps Rugby Club had used to be exclusively for gay and bi guys, but had decided to welcome everyone, initially because they’d had a bit of a crisis in terms of player numbers. They’d been so successful that they’d carried on with the strategy and were now heading up the leagues, making a tongue-in-cheek thing about their equality policy ensuring that straight players didn’t get given a hard time.
The Wednesday before last, a bloke called Nick Osment had been found dead in the changing room in the clubhouse, and so far the police had shown no signs of making an arrest. Plenty of appeals for help, though, and some noncommittal statements about following a number of leads.
Had they hit a brick wall so early in the investigation and needed a fresh pair of eyes? Robin had built up his experience of murder cases over the last few years, and he’d been a hundred percent successful on leading his team to finding the culprit, but surely he wasn’t the most experienced officer they could call on if a case had stalled? Or was there another reason, given the history of the club, that the local force had picked on this particular officer?
“This secondment,” Adam asked, as soon as Robin appeared, “they’ve not called you in because you’re gay? Rainbow rugby and all that.”
Robin shrugged. “On the surface, no. They needed to call somebody in, though—right bloody mess up at the local station—and I used to work with the detective superintendent there when I was a snotty sergeant and she was my inspector. Rukshana Betteridge. I’ve mentioned her.”
“You have.” They’d also discussed the fact that some people muttered behind her back that she’d only been fast-tracked because she was a woman, and mixed race to boot, but Robin wasn’t having that. She was simply a better copper than most of the blokes she worked alongside, and he’d learned a hell of a lot from her. “I particularly remember a story about you, her, and the nuclear-strength chicken vindaloo. Three hours on and off the loo, was it?”
“I was hoping you’d have forgotten that.” Robin gave Campbell a pat. “Your dads can’t get away with any misdemeanours, can they? Cowdrey rang me, and he says Detective Superintendent Betteridge—I’ll never be able to call her Rukshana to her face—got in touch and pleaded to have me help out. I’m hoping it’s my skills as a copper and my track record with solving murders that was the key thing, rather than who I bed.”
Adam nodded. He’d already got out and opened a couple of bottles of beer: Robin looked as though he could do with one. “So, what’s this right bloody mess you’ve got lumped with sorting out?”
“The detective inspector who reports to her, Robertson. His appendix went haywire back end of last week, and he’s developed peritonitis on top of appendicitis. They’ve operated successfully, but he won’t return to work anytime soon, no matter how much he wants to be. This bloke was running the investigation, and there’s nobody local to take his place. Even his sergeant’s been working nonstop on an abuse case.”
“Bloody mess is no exaggeration, then.”
“Yep.” Robin scratched Campbell’s head distractedly. “Cowdrey says it’ll be great for my career, but he also understands it won’t be easy, hard on the heels of last weekend.”
“I should have applied to the school for unpaid leave. We could have headed off to the back of beyond, in which case they couldn’t have got hold of us.” Adam put his arm around Robin’s shoulders and held him close. “It’ll work. We’ll make it work.”
Robin nuzzled into Adam’s chest. “Yeah, I know. I really wish I didn’t have to, but Betteridge was a good friend to me, and I feel I owe her. And there’s some poor dead sod who deserves justice.”
“Don’t apologise. Just catch the bloody killer quickly so you can get back here. This is not the sort of honeymoon I imagined having.” Adam chuckled, gave him a kiss, then had to pretend to give Campbell one too, as the dog was clearly feeling left out.
“I could tell Cowdrey to stick it. Politely, of course, because I’m neither that brave nor that stupid. He told me to take an hour to think it over.” Robin glanced at his watch. “I’ve still time to decide.”
“Hey, I was only kidding about the honeymoon. You go. It’s not like I’m some blushing bride and we only had our first night together once you’d put a ring on it. As far as I’m concerned, the honeymoon started ages ago and it’s never stopped.” Adam gave him a lingering kiss. “It would be worse if I’d fallen for a soldier.”
“You soft bugger. I’ll get onto Cowdrey right now, and put him out of his misery. He’ll be grateful, as will Betteridge.”
“Anything I can do to help, let me know. When does he want you to travel?”
“Tomorrow, preferably.” Robin grimaced. “I’m glad Sandra got all the washing and ironing up-to-date. I need to get rummaging in the airing cupboard and get a suitcase packed. There are other phone calls I should make too.”
“Make one to your mum and another to Pru. Subcontract all other communication to them.” Mrs. Bright and Robin’s favourite sergeant would be able to handle any task set. In fact, the maternal information network would ensure the news would be halfway across the county within thirty minutes of Mrs. Bright being told. Adam wondered if she stood on her roof using semaphore flags or an Aldis lamp, depending on the time of day.
“The first would work, but Pru’s likely to be too busy. Cowdrey said he’d like her to go with me. DS Betteridge wants me to have an officer I’m used to working with on my team, and it’ll be good experience for her.” Robin was clearly warming to the positive aspects of this assignment. “I’m sure that if I give young Ben a call instead, he can pass on the news to the team. He always hints he wants extra responsibility.”
“Will you still be calling him young Ben in twenty years' time, when he’s in his forties and losing his hair?” Adam snorted. “Maybe then he’ll regard you like you regard Betteridge.”
“If he does, I’ll be pleased.” Robin returned the kiss, grabbed his phone, and went to call Cowdrey.
The casserole wouldn’t be ready for a while, so Adam nipped upstairs to get Robin’s clothes out of the airing cupboard; he laid them out on the bed, trying to be helpful and also gathering his thoughts.
It had to be a good opportunity for both Robin and Pru in terms of career development. Showing their willingness to help out even if it meant personal inconvenience, the chance of working with a new team and a new area, and maybe learning things they could bring back and apply in Abbotston. Adam felt a swell of pride at the confidence Robin’s old boss clearly felt in her protégé, whatever other considerations might have come into play. Adam wasn’t going to get sidetracked into thinking about whether this might herald a move to Hartwood itself, with Betteridge taking Robin back under her wing in a police variation on the January football transfer window. Robin would certainly enjoy working with her again. He’d never expressed anything but praise for her and the way she’d fought her corner firmly but politely at so many turns.
Adam would have loved to have been a fly on the wall the day when she’d charmingly pulled up a young sergeant who’d referred to her having had an attack of feminine intuition with the words, “If a bloke made a leap of reasoning like that, you’d call it a hunch, so that’s what we’ll call it in my case, eh?”
Heavy pawsteps on the stairs, accompanied by snuffling, heralded the arrival of Campbell, who wasn’t usually allowed upstairs except on special occasions, of which this had to be one.
“Come to make sure I’m laying out everything your other dad needs? He doesn’t want that, thank you.” Adam wrested a small stuffed toy—albeit not horribly slobbery—out of the Newfoundland’s jaws. “I’ll get him to FaceTime you every day so you’ll know he’s safe.”
What would his colleagues say if they saw him having an earnest conversation with a dog? The children wouldn’t bat an eyelid, naturally. They’d understand such things were important.
“We’ll both miss him, only don’t let on too much, eh? I don’t want him giving up the chance simply to stop us being upset.”
Campbell glanced up, big brown eyes full of what might be interpreted as understanding, then nuzzled his nose into Adam’s hand. It was going to be just the two of them again for the next few weeks, and they’d need to take care of each other. Although there was a plus side to the situation: the murder having taken place so far away, the investigation of it really couldn’t draw him or Campbell in this time. Could it?
Adam stretched over to touch the wooden bedside table, aware they’d tempted fate already that afternoon.
Robin didn’t set off first thing the next day, not least because the traffic was always a nightmare on Monday morning. Reports on the morning travel news of an accident blocking the M40 and causing huge delays in the area left him feeling smug at making the right choice. He went into Abbotston station, where he could ensure a proper handover of active cases—Robin suspected Cowdrey was quite looking forward to rolling up his sleeves and being operational for a while.
Pru and he also got their heads down for half an hour to familiarise themselves with what had happened so far in the investigation. As expected with anything organised by Betteridge, the initial enquiries had been methodical, painstaking, and had left no obvious stones unturned. Cowdrey having passed on an updated mobile number for her, Robin had sent a brief message to his old boss saying that he was delighted to be working for her again and received an answer along the same lines, with the intriguing addition, Something doesn’t add up in this case, and I can’t spot what it is. Fresh eyes welcomed.
“It has to be out of the ordinary for Betteridge not to have put her finger on it,” Robin said, after sharing the message with Pru. “Sharp as a razor, that woman.”
“It does seem an odd case all round on the face of it, sir.”
That was an understatement, given what they’d learned reading the case notes.
“Okay, Pru. Talk me through this like I know nothing.”
“Last Wednesday evening bar one. Hartwood rugby team holding their regular practice session at the ground they share with the local athletics club. One of the players, Greg, gets badly hurt in a tackle, and the ambulance is called. Dave, the bloke he tackled, and his mate Andy both go into the changing room to clean up so they can head off to hospital, where they’ll keep the injured man company until his girlfriend, Dawn, can get there.”
“Dawn’s the one who’s providing an alibi, right?”
“Hey, you’re getting ahead, sir.”
“Sorry. I’m finding it complicated, trying to take it all in at once, rather than organically.” He’d not appreciated before how important the normal slow accruing of information was. “And don’t say it’s wedding brain.”
“Never crossed my mind.” Pru grinned. “Right. Dave and Andy go into the changing room, then Dave goes into the loos on his own. He notices a pair of feet sticking out from one of the cubicles, nudges the door open and finds a man lying in there, stone dead because somebody’s walloped his skull. It turns out that the victim, Nick Osment, is the husband of the woman Dawn’s currently having a girls’ wine-and-chat evening with. As you say, she’s giving the alibi.”
“If we believe her.”
Pru wagged a finger at her laptop screen. “It says here there’s only one obvious way into the changing rooms—straight off the pitch—because the other door, connecting to the clubhouse, has been routinely kept locked and bolted on the other side unless the bar staff are in. Because of a spate of thefts a year back.”
“People would have had keys to those doors, though. Maybe a set of master keys to the whole site.” Robin recalled the sports club where his dad had played football in the winter and cricket in the summer. A bloke they called Codger—Robin had no idea what his real name was—had a great big ring of keys that Mr. Bright had said included one for the Tower of London. Robin had believed that for months until his mother had put him straight. “We need to follow that through. Easy enough to enter from the bar, then bolt the door behind you when you’d used it to escape.”
Pru nodded. “Unlikely the victim’s wife, Melanie, would have been in that position, but that’s me making assumptions. On the face of it, she has that unbreakable alibi for the time of death. Unless Dawn’s lying for her. Same goes for the people involved with the training session. They all account for each other at the time the murder is supposed to have occurred.”
Robin shrugged. “I’ll have more of an idea about that when we’ve talked to some of the key people face-to-face. I trust Betteridge, but I have no idea how robust her junior officers are. You ask the wrong questions, you get incomplete statements.”
“It’s going to need all our tact, sir. Witnesses won’t be happy to go through everything again, and they’ll be suspicious that the local force has somehow cocked up, which is why they’ve had to call us in.”
Pru had a point. “Betteridge says she’s happy for us to be upfront about Robertson’s illness. But yes, we’ll tread carefully.” Robin glanced at his watch. “Traffic should have eased. Let’s hit the road.”
The sooner they got on with things, the sooner he could get back to Adam.
By the time they arrived in Hartwood, Pru and him sharing the driving, Robin had set up the first of their interviews. He’d wanted to nab the man who found the body, Dave Venter, but he wasn’t available until the next day, although his mate Andy—the one who’d accompanied him to the changing rooms—was happy to meet them as soon as they arrived. He worked around the corner from a Hilton hotel, so suggested they all meet in the bar there, which he reckoned served good coffee and had plenty of places where they could chat without being overheard.
Robin and Pru drove straight there before going to the police station, both wanting to get something on this case firsthand. They’d soon, no doubt, be bombarded with the opinions of the constables already working on the murder. Robin had advised them he’d be there late afternoon for a meet-and-greet followed by a briefing. He toyed with offering to take them out for a beer, but held that in abeyance until he got a feeling for what they were like. He was there to do a job, not to be flavour of the month.
Andy was waiting for them in the foyer, as they soon established after a bit of Are you waiting for us? type mime. He was ready to get down to business and seemed happy at an opportunity to rehash things. Maybe too happy, given the puppy-dog grin he kept flashing Robin. Somebody else who fancied him, like the choirmaster seemed to? Adam would be threatening to lock him up at this rate.
“Thanks for meeting us,” Robin said, straight-faced. “Sorry to have to make you go through all this again, but we’re new to the case and I’d like to hear everything straight from you, not via someone else.”
“I get that.” Andy nodded. “Word got around that the inspector who’d seen us had appendicitis. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. As for repeating stuff, I’m a customer service manager at an insurance company, so I know how information can get garbled if you don’t hear it direct.”
They ordered coffee, then got settled in a quiet corner.
“So, can we hear direct what happened at the training ground two Wednesdays ago?” Pru asked.
Andy winced. “God, I’ll never forget that evening. Bad things happen to other people, right? I’d never have thought me and the guys would get caught up in something like this, but we got a shit-ton of crap dumped on us.”
“You certainly did,” Pru said, soothingly. “You’ll still be in shock.”
“We all are. Sorry, I sound like a whiny teenager, all sorry for myself, but it’s really got to us. And I feel guilty because it’s Greg I keep thinking about, rather than the bloke in the loos.” The sentiment sounded genuine.
“Rugby’s a dangerous game. Anyone who’s played it appreciates the risks.” Shontayne Hape had suffered so many concussions he’d not been able to remember his PIN.
“Yeah, we’ve had that drummed into us enough. You should hear Coach. ‘Not like the old days where we pretended not to be hurt and walked round in a daze half the time.’” It must have been an acceptable impression of a Welsh accent given that Pru didn’t appear to object. “Now we have proper protocols for head injuries.”
Pru, being a valleys girl, was even more enthusiastic about rugby than Robin or Adam. “Coach misses the old days, does he?”
“Yeah. He always says nobody can sidestep like they used to back then. But all joking aside, he doesn’t miss the injuries. Seen too many good blokes affected for the rest of their lives. Like Greg might be. Up to now we’ve had nothing worse than a few broken noses and cauliflower ears. Trouble is none of us believed that the big, bad injury was ever going to happen at Hartwood. Until it did.”
Time to bring this back to the matter in hand before it became a rugby heart-to-heart. “Coach? Was he leading the training session?” Robin asked.
“Yeah, he always does. Oh, and his name’s Derek Preese but nobody uses that.”
“Ah. That name rings a bell from the statements. Right, imagine we know nothing about what went on at training. Talk us through it.” Much as Robin wanted to get through the rugby stuff and get onto the finding of the body, they needed to set the scene. The action on the pitch was all going on at the same time as the victim was being attacked, which made the matter of who was where, and doing what, vital.
“Okay. It was a normal training session, almost.”
“Almost? Want to clarify that?”
“Well, such a bad injury wasn’t normal, was it? Before that we were all on the pitch, running through the usual moves and practice plays. Then Greg Holmes, who plays on the flank meaning he’s pretty nippy despite being muscular with it, got his angle wrong going into a tackle on Big Dave and caught the side of his neck on the bloke’s shoulder.” Andy paused for breath, having delivered all that at a lick. “The pair of them went down awkwardly, and Greg didn’t get up.”
“Take your time,” Pru said. “We know it’s not easy.”
Andy nodded. “Greg was out for the count, so our scrum half Joe—who’s first-aid trained—came running over, meaning to put him in the recovery position, but Coach said it was best to leave him alone. Somebody, Gareth I think it was, called an ambulance, while Joe kept an eye on Greg to make sure he was breathing okay.”
Greg, Gareth, Big somebody or other. Robin was glad that Pru was keeping a record of all the names to compare with their notes. The arrival of a waiter with coffees a few seconds later was very welcome, letting Robin get his head round the characters and emotions involved that night.
Once the waiter had gone again, Andy continued. “Eventually I took Dave off to the side of the pitch, because he was getting himself into a hell of a state. I kept telling him it had been an accident, and he kept saying that he hadn’t meant to dip his shoulder as he went into the collision. He was rambling, going on about how he wished it had been him who’d been injured, how he’d never forgive himself, and how Dawn was going to kill him.”
Robin wasn’t unsympathetic. He could imagine what Dave had been thinking, wondering if things would have turned out okay if he’d taken the tackle at a different angle, or whether it might have made things worse. Wanting to go back in time and replay the moment, changing the outcome. “We’ve not been to the ground yet. Could you draw us a rough sketch of where everything is, and what part of the pitch the accident happened on?” He produced a notepad and pen.
“Yeah, of course.” Andy set to, talking as he drew. “Typical multipurpose place. Athletics, rugby, training. There’s a stand along the home straight—there’s the rugby pitch touchline running alongside. The bar-cum-clubhouse takes up half the bottom of the stand and the changing rooms are at the back and side. You get to them through this tunnel, right by the twenty-two. Go down there, then turn right. There’s no external door to the changing rooms, but there’s a direct door though to the clubhouse.”
“Is that the only door to the clubhouse?” Robin asked.
“No, there’s three altogether. One out the back and another into the tunnel. You need them to cope with the postmatch rush.”
Robin bent his head over the paper. “Can you see the bar from the pitch?”
“Nope. The bar area windows are mainly at the side, with a row of small ones facing the pitch, but they only really let in a bit of light. The bar seating area is under the spectator seating, if that makes sense.”
Which meant somebody could go in there and hang about, unnoticed.
“Where did the accident happen?” Pru asked.
Andy placed his finger on the diagram. “Greg went down here, five metres in from the far touchline, roughly on the twenty-two that’s farthest from the tunnel. The bar end. When I took Dave off to talk him down from the ledge, we came over to the grandstand, to get him away.”
Robin was impressed. Both the map and the explanation were clear and concise. Here was a witness you could put into the box and a jury would believe him.
“I guess you were all pretty distracted at that point?” Pru asked. “Could anyone have got in or out of the tunnel then? Or the bar?”
“The bar’s kept locked, so unless they had the keys, they’d have no chance. We might not have seen them, though. When you’re under the lights everything off the pitch is rather fuzzy.”
“And the tunnel?”
“Nobody could have sneaked in or out after Dave and I went and stood by where we’d all left our kit. I know that for a fact. It’s possible they might have done previously, given that we were preoccupied what with training and then the accident. I’ve had a think, since, and I’m pretty sure I can account for me, Dave, Coach, and Greg from the moment we went out to practice until the point Dave found the body. Nick’s body, although we didn’t know that at the time. I couldn’t swear to where any of the others were, though. Coach would have noticed if they were skiving off training, but once Greg went down, everyone’s attention was focussed on him.”
Apart from the killer’s, presumably. Shame that the medical report couldn’t tie the time of death down to a more specific window than between seven and eight o’clock, give or take a few minutes either way—although there was corroborative evidence concerning when the changing room had been empty. Vacated by seven and occupied by around a quarter past eight, all of which Robin would double-check now.
“I’d like to get the timescale clear. What time was the last person out of the changing room and onto the pitch for practice?”
“Seven o’clock, on the dot.” Andy grinned. “I know because it was Big Dave and he got the traditional fine for being tail-end Charlie. And before you ask, there was nobody in the loos before the rest of us came out.”
“Okay. At what time did Greg have his accident?”
Andy’s brow wrinkled. “Somewhere around eight o’clock, I guess.”
That chimed with the 999 call that had been logged a few minutes after then. As suspected, something like an hour’s window for both victim and murderer to get into the changing rooms.
“I have to ask,” Pru said, “why do you call him Big Dave?”
“He’s been my mate since primary school. I used to get picked on, but then he moved into the area and we became besties. He was built like the side of a barn even then—hence the nickname—so nobody was going to be stupid enough to get on the wrong side of him, although he’s actually as easy-going as they come. Gentle giant.”
Robin had his own gentle giant at home. Campbell might have been large and imposing, but he was soft as a goose feather.
Andy frowned. “You know, I’ve been kicking myself. Thinking about what we know now that we didn’t then, things might have turned out different, because we almost went back into the changing rooms earlier. I’d grabbed Dave’s arm and said it was no use freezing our ball— backsides off hanging about, but he wasn’t having it. He wanted to stay until the paramedics arrived, because he was determined to tell them exactly what happened. Said he knew Greg would have wanted him to wait there. Daft sod, but there was no moving him. I got us our track suits from where we’d left them by the side of the pitch, and we put them on. Then the paramedics arrived.”
“Did Dave go and talk to them?”
“No, I managed to stop him from going and describing the tackle in detail. Joe was already miming the impact, demonstrating where and how Greg’s head had been hit. Dave nearly fainted when he saw that. I asked him if he wanted me to get the paramedics to check him over too, but he said he was fine. Simply a jolt to his shoulder.”
Last out of the changing room, reluctant to go back in there: Dave’s actions might have been entirely innocent, but they’d bear further investigation. Was it possible that his coming over faint at the reconstruction of the accident was less about the tackle than the fact he’d bashed someone over the head earlier that evening?
Pru’s thoughts were clearly going down the same lines. “I know he’s your mate, so this is going to seem a pretty harsh thing to ask, but did you believe him? I mean, did anything strike you as suspicious about how he was acting? Or anyone else was acting,” she added, hastily, as Andy’s face had turned thunderous.
“You lay off Dave. I’ve known him long enough to realise he’s no actor. What you see is what you get. And what I saw was him wanting to go in the ambulance with Greg because he reckoned he needed somebody with him until Dawn got there. It was only when Dave said that we realised nobody might have rung her, yet.”
Was that an honest assessment of the situation or a neat sidestep of the real question?
“Did Dave want to make the call?” Robin asked.
“You’ve got him sussed. Yep, insisted he should be the one to relay the bad news, but he was in no state to ring anyone. I decided to ask Coach if Dawn had been contacted.”
Robin glanced at the diagram Andy had drawn. “Did Dave stay by the grandstand?”
“Nah. He tagged behind. Short of tying him to one of the railings, I couldn’t stop him.”
“Who rang the girlfriend?”
“Coach. He’s got the knack with these things.”
“Which means?” Pru asked.
“If there’s a shitty job to do, he steps up to the plate and does it better than any of us would. He gets on with all the partners—female or male. Coach bats for the same team as me, see, and while he’s never said anything much about his private life, we all know that his lodger, Steve, isn’t only his lodger.” Andy rolled his eyes. “Shame that generation didn’t have the same freedom to come out as we do.”
“Same applies to some people in this generation. You don’t have to be in a third-world country to risk everything by admitting what you are.” Robin halted, aware that he was preaching to a pair of people who least needed it. Also aware that he was at risk of coming out himself and that wasn’t relevant to the situation.
“You’re right. I don’t know what pressures Coach has on him.”
Pru gently brought them back to the matter in hand. “Mr. Preese rang Dawn? Given what we now know, it’s important we have all the details.”
“Yes, he rang her. He walked off a few yards, so that Dawn wouldn’t hear all the hoo-hah, which means I don’t know precisely what was said. He just told us she’d be going to the hospital as soon as she could. That she’d been having a couple of glasses of wine at a mate’s house and didn’t want to drive until she’d got some coffee into her and no longer risked being over the limit.”
Again, that could all be true or it could be part of an elaborately constructed alibi for Melanie. Robin asked, “What happened then?”
“Coach got to work on Dave. Persuaded him not to go driving off after the ambulance as he’d be another accident waiting to happen. Asked me to run the bloke to the hospital.” Andy frowned.
“Ye-es? Is there a problem?”
“I was trying to relive what happened next. I remember suggesting we go and have a shower, and Dave insisting that we should go to the hospital straight away. Coach put his foot down and said he’d make sure one of the players went with Greg in the ambulance. He also told me to get the smelly bugger—his words, meaning Dave—to have a shower and get changed before we went.”
Again, Dave not wanting to go into the changing room. And he’d wanted to be the one to ring Dawn: evidence of collusion or evidence of the workings of Robin’s oversuspicious mind?
“Okay, to clarify, again, Mr. Preese was the one who persuaded him to go and clean up first?”
Andy nodded. “The rest of us were being pretty useless apart from Joe and his first aid. Anyway, Coach said that the accident and emergency department staff wouldn’t appreciate having a muddy, sweaty lump of lard hanging around trailing grass across their nice clean waiting area.”
Robin grinned, imagining some of the rugby coaches he’d known saying the same thing. He nodded for Andy to continue.
“I took Dave off to the dressing room where we had a quick shower, then changed back into our normal clobber. Before we left, Dave said he wanted to use the loo. I wondered if that was an excuse, if he needed some time to pull himself together before we went to the hospital. I got a hell of a shock when he screamed, because I immediately assumed he was having a nervous breakdown or something. I hared in there, asking if he was okay, which is when I saw it too. Saw him, I mean.”
The body sitting slumped on a cubicle seat: Robin had seen the pictures from the crime scene. No wonder Dave had screamed when he’d swung the door open. “Can you do me another diagram? One of the changing rooms and where the showers and loos are?”
“Yep.” Andy took the paper again, sketching it out. The tunnel took a sharp bend to the right, with a door into the changing area. Right turn from there into a small area for cleaning boots and storage. Straight ahead had you facing the entrance to the showers, with the changing area on the left, occupying the long part of the room. The toilets were at the far left, two cubicles needing a right turn to get to them. The door to the bar was at that end too. “We try to keep all the mud and muck up one end, but it doesn’t always work. You can’t see into either the showers or the loos from the changing area itself, which is why we didn’t see . . . him . . . until we went in there.”
“That’s different from when I was playing.”
“We got a lottery grant to update the facility a few years back, and one of the considerations was ensuring privacy if people wanted it.”
“And where does the opposition change?” Pru asked.
Andy pointed at an area just to the right of the tunnel entrance. “Their changing room and showers are here. There’s a door almost by the tunnel entrance. Home and away teams separate for the rugby, male and female for the athletics.”
Robin was starting to get a clearer picture. Plenty of places for somebody to hide in if they had the right keys. “What did you do when you found the body?”
“Manhandled Dave out of the toilet area, for a start, before he puked on the crime scene. Then I got my phone to ring 999 while I sent Dave out to warn the others. I hovered at the entrance to the changing rooms, making sure nobody went in, then Coach came up the tunnel and told us not to move anything until the police gave us permission. He always knows what to do. I thought it was lucky that I’d brought mine and Dave’s bags out already.”
A case of either luck or good thinking. Robin hoped the officers on the scene hadn’t let the pair swan off without having those bags checked.
“Did you recognise the victim?” Pru asked.
“No, although I’ve got to admit I didn’t take a proper look. I’m rather squeamish when it comes to blood and gore and when I saw his bashed-in skull, that was it. Couldn’t get away quick enough.” Andy gave Pru a sheepish grin. “Typical rugby player. All brawn, but a big, wet lettuce with it.”
“What did you notice near the body?”
“Nothing. They asked about that before. Seemed to be searching for a phone, but I didn’t see that.” Andy shrugged.
“What happened then?” Pru asked.
“The police arrived. Good timing, because we almost had a riot on our hands. The paramedics had got Greg into the ambulance and the other players wanted to get changed. Even Coach was struggling to control them. We could have opened the other changing room, but that would have been no good without people having their gear.” Andy shrugged. “Then Dave and I showed the police the dead bloke and they took a brief statement from us about how and when we’d found him. Then they went into a conflab with Coach about how to get the mutiny quelled.”
“Not an easy task.” Robin recalled dealing with a similar situation when he was a junior officer. Taking a list of names and addresses, doing a quick search of bags to make sure no weapons were being sneaked off the premises. The most galling part was the fact it had been a bunch of old ladies who’d caused the most trouble and had complained the loudest.
“I didn’t envy them it. I only had Dave moaning at me, wanting to get to the hospital and find out what was happening with Greg. They had best part of forty blokes causing a fuss.”
Robin hoped that the officers in charge had been effective in managing the situation—he’d get Pru to delve into that little matter—so nobody had slipped through the net or managed to conceal something. Although only the most stupid of murderers would have left an incriminating article in the changing room when the dead body was so easily discoverable and a clampdown on the site would inevitably follow. Didn’t most people have a good idea of what happened at crime scenes given how often they were depicted on the telly?
“You definitely didn’t know the dead man?” he asked.
“Nope.” Andy peered at the diagram again, as though the answer might be found there. “Mind you, there have been so many pictures of him in the media since then, I’ve begun to doubt myself. I might have met him once, but his face didn’t ring a bell at the time we found him.”
“But he was connected to your group of friends, surely?” Pru said, with surprising determination. “Through Greg and Dawn.”
“Yeah, well, that was a shock. We had no idea. He doesn’t—didn’t—hang around with us. Melanie didn’t, either. She was Dawn’s pal, not Greg’s.”
There didn’t seem to be much further to be gained from the interview. Robin concluded it with the usual reminder that if Andy remembered anything else that might be significant, he was to get in touch.
“I’ll do that.” Andy made a sheepish grin. “Look, I know this is being cheeky, but can I give you a flyer? We’re fundraising for Greg and Dawn, and I thought maybe you could put this up in the station canteen, if there is one?”
“I’ve no idea if there is or not. We’ve not been there yet. But I’ll take it.” Robin cast a glance at the sheet, which listed the range of activities planned to raise money. He passed it to Pru, who raised an eyebrow, then carefully filed the flyer in her briefcase.
Word Count: 95,000
Page Count: 350
Cover By: LC Chase
Series: Lindenshaw Mysteries
Release Date: 05/11/2020
Release Date: 05/11/2020