Read Closer Still Online

Authors: Jo Bannister

Closer Still (7 page)

‘We're always around,' said Daniel.
The detectives returned to their car, parked exactly where Joe Loomis had parked his. Voss drove.
‘This cottage,' said Salmon. ‘Is it far?'
‘Twenty minutes,' said Voss. ‘Do you want to phone ahead and check she's in?'
It's not good policy to warn suspects that you're on your way, but not many career criminals are murdered by middle-aged women and Salmon thought he'd take the risk.
A man answered. ‘I'm afraid my mother's out at the moment. This is Dev Stretton – can I help?'
 
Most of the cottages scattered across the Three Downs had been built for agricultural workers, at a time when agricultural work meant walking eleven miles behind a plough to break one acre of ground. Now it meant sitting in forty thousand pounds' worth of machinery that did the job inside the hour and there were more cottages than labourers. Faith Stretton bought this one when she had two young children to raise and only her skill as a potter to raise them on. She'd converted a stable into a workshop, installed a kiln and set about supplying the souvenir and curio shops of the south coast with mugs and salad bowls.
Today, though, she'd strayed from her wheel. She still wasn't home when the policemen arrived. Her son met them at the door. So presumably the Land Rover outside, with
Crichton Construction
stencilled on the doors, was his.
He seemed unsure what they wanted. Detective Inspector Salmon was deliberately vague, in case the way his mind turned might tell them something. Mostly a man
is anxious about what he feels guilty about.
But Stretton only shrugged. ‘You're wasting your time on me. I didn't see the incident – my mother only called me after it was over.'
Dave Salmon nodded equably. ‘So I understand. Well, we're still trying to get a picture of where Joe Loomis was and what he was doing in the days before his death. We're not sure what's relevant at this point so we're talking to everyone.' He jerked his head towards the drive. ‘You're in the construction industry?'
‘I'm a civil engineer.'
‘Bridges, dams – that kind of thing?'
‘Sometimes. Right now we're laying a main sewer out to Menner Down.'
‘Ah. The glamorous end of the business.'
Stretton didn't return his smile. That didn't mean he was guilty of something: on the whole, innocent people are more nervous around the police than those who see them regularly. The inspector cleared his throat. ‘Your mother knew Joe Loomis years ago, didn't she?'
Her son bristled just perceptibly. ‘She made a statement about this.'
‘Yes, she did. But finding a murderer involves getting a lot of people to repeat themselves.'
‘I'm sure she'll repeat it as often as you need,' said Stretton calmly. ‘Shall I phone her and tell her to hurry home?'
‘In a minute,' said Salmon. ‘Mr Stretton, you're not telling me you don't know about her relationship with Loomis?'
‘I know about it. I don't remember it. I was a small child. My mother didn't share the secrets of her love life with me then, and she doesn't now.'
‘She didn't tell you about the incident on the seafront?'
Stretton shrugged. ‘Yes, of course – but … Look, it was unpleasant, but neither of us thought we'd end up answering police questions about it. She bumped into an old flame, they argued, she snapped at him and he slapped her. Not very edifying, but not that big a deal.'
‘He assaulted her.' It was Charlie Voss's first contribution. ‘She could have told us. We'd have thought it was a big deal.'
‘Well, maybe.' Stretton's tone was sceptical. ‘Or maybe someone would have made a note on a blotter and she'd never have heard any more about it. Anyway, she didn't want to see Loomis in court. She wanted never to see him again. It was personal, and it was over. It never occurred to us that a week later he'd be dead. I don't think he died because he slapped my mother's face, Inspector. Nothing I've read in anybody's bible suggests God's a feminist.'
‘What was the argument about?' asked Salmon.
But Stretton shook his head. His expression was turning slowly – not stubborn exactly, more immovable. Without saying or doing anything objectionable he was able to convey the message that they could lean on him as much as they liked, it wasn't going to get them anywhere. ‘I told you, I wasn't there.'
‘Didn't she tell you?'
‘No.'
‘And you didn't ask?'
‘No. It was personal. And these are questions you should be asking her. My mother's an honest woman, she'll tell you anything you want to know, so don't ask me to talk behind her back.'
Salmon shrugged, unabashed. ‘My whole job's about asking people to talk behind one another's backs. So your mother knew Loomis twenty years ago but they didn't stay friends. Did she see him much in that time?'
‘Dimmock's a small town,' Stretton said loftily, ‘it would be odd if they didn't clap eyes on one another in twenty years. He never came here. If she met him, she never said anything to me.'
‘Did she talk about him?'
Shutters closed behind Stretton's eyes. ‘Hardly at all, and never with any fondness. It was a mistake. She was glad to put it behind her.'
They were interrupted by the sound of a car pulling up outside, then by voices. The front door of the cottage opened and Faith Stretton came in, accompanied by her daughter. There wasn't much of a family resemblance between any of the three of them. Dev was dark and six-foot tall, Faith was tawny and sturdy, the girl was a slender brunette.
Faith's lips framed a question mark. ‘Dev?'
‘They're policemen, Ma. They want to ask you about Joe Loomis.'
‘Ah.' She thought for a moment, then turned to her daughter. ‘Evie, take the shopping upstairs.' Then, laughing at the girl's expression: ‘Don't look so worried! They're
not here to arrest me. I haven't done anything you can get arrested for. Dev, give her a hand. I swear to God, we've emptied shops the length and breadth of Dimmock.'
When they were alone she addressed the detectives. ‘Now, what can I tell you about the late and unlamented slimeball that you don't already know?'
Voss blinked. Nicely spoken middle-aged women don't usually call people slimeballs even when it's accurate.
Detective Inspector Salmon met her honesty with some of his own. ‘I don't know what you were arguing about that resulted in him striking you in a public street.'
‘Ghosts,' said Faith Stretton succinctly. ‘The shade of a foolish girl not much older than my daughter, who thought she could polish up a rough diamond and broke both her nails and her heart.'
‘Then why did you want to see him again?' asked Salmon.
‘I didn't. I bumped into him on the Promenade. If there'd been time to cross the road I would have done. But he'd seen me and I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of running away.'
‘What did he say?'
‘He asked after Dev. I told him he was fine – qualified and working for a big company. I enjoyed telling him that,' she added with a secret smile.
‘Why?'
She shrugged. ‘I'm a proud mother.'
‘Yes. And?'
She tipped her head to one side like a bird, assessing him. ‘Inspector, you've met my son. I presume you noticed he's what polite people call mixed-race and the less couth
call a half-breed? Well, Joe Loomis was always less couth than anyone else. When I first knew him he resented the fact that I had a half-Asian child, and the intervening years did nothing to mellow him. Within about three sentences he was getting nasty. I should have walked away. Instead I told him I didn't care who knew I'd once had an Asian lover as long as no one knew I'd slept with Joe! That's when he hit me.'
Which was pretty much the story told by the witness statements. ‘Did you see him after that?'
Faith Stretton shook her head. ‘A week later he was dead. And all I could think was,
Good riddance.
'
DS Voss said, ‘Mr Loomis was stabbed around ten o'clock on Tuesday evening. Do you remember what you were doing about then?'
‘Tuesday night? I was here, filling the kiln. But I don't think I can prove it.' She caught him with a faintly provocative eye. ‘Do I need to?'
‘Not at the moment,' said Salmon cheerfully. ‘What about Dev? Was he here too?'
‘You mean, can we alibi one another? As a matter of fact he was. Working in the upstairs office. The same as he does every weekday evening. My son works hard, Inspector. He works long hours, and when he gets home he's tired and he's dirty. He goes out socialising on a Saturday night, maybe sees friends on a Sunday. But weekday evenings he's at home, either on the computer or with his feet up in front of the television.'
‘What about you?' asked Voss. ‘Do you do much socialising?'
‘Even less than Dev,' she said cheerfully. ‘I've got a good excuse for not bothering any more. I'm forty-six.'
Voss said, ‘If Dev was on the computer we can probably substantiate that.'
‘If you feel the need to,' said Faith tartly.
He met her gaze unblinking and gave her the stock answer. ‘Routine procedure, Ms Stretton. It always helps to eliminate people from an inquiry.'
Back in the car he said to Salmon, ‘Do you want to get his hard drive checked?'
Salmon was thinking. ‘He doesn't seem the type. Except …'
Voss nodded. ‘D-d-d-Dev,' he said.
‘D-d-d-Dev,' stammered Detective Inspector Salmon pensively. ‘D-d-d-Deacon.'
‘D-d-d-Dave,' murmured Charlie Voss. They'd stopped off for a ploughman's lunch in The Belted Galloway.
Dave Salmon chuckled. ‘It's not much to base a case on, is it?'
‘Unless the D in question happens to be a policeman,' said Voss sourly.
‘Well – the senior investigating officer,' amended Salmon reasonably. ‘Look, Charlie – you know Deacon's a good cop, I know Deacon's a good cop, Division knows Deacon's a good cop. Nobody thinks he killed Joe Loomis. But it would look like a conflict of interests if he handled this one. Deacon was after Loomis and Loomis was fighting back. It had already got personal, it was about to get nasty. And Deacon can't prove where he was when Loomis walked sideways into a sharp instrument. Of course it means nothing – except that he should leave this one to someone else.'
‘You.'
‘Us,' Salmon corrected him. ‘You know the people involved, I know something about murder. We'll find
out who did it, then I can go home and Jack Deacon can come back to work. Thus pleasing both my wife and Mr Deacon's partner.'
That made Voss grin. Salmon may not have been in Dimmock long but he'd quickly tuned in to how things worked here. Of course, he'd spoken to Deacon and interviewed Brodie. Perhaps it didn't take a world-class detective to see the potential for friction.
Last time Voss was liaison between Dimmock CID and a blow-in he was made the scapegoat when things went pear-shaped. He didn't want to be put in that position again. It wasn't just that Deacon was the devil he knew: he trusted the man. Voss wasn't blind to his faults, but his virtues were important ones. Honesty. Integrity. Strength of mind, character and purpose. It would be a while before Voss let himself be swayed by charm again. He said, ‘What do you do in London?'
‘Recently, this,' said Salmon, attacking his Stilton baguette. (The landlord at The Belted Galloway had a rather up-market view of what ploughmen ate.) ‘Filling in where a gap has opened up. Illness, injury, guys taking gardening leave – basically, any job that no one else wants, send Salmon. Murder today, drugs tomorrow, counter-terrorism next week. You know the biggest problem? You're never anywhere long enough to work out which coffee machine makes the best brew.'
‘Shouldn't be a problem here,' sniffed Voss. ‘We've only got one, and it doesn't know the difference between coffee and oxtail soup.' He backed up a step. ‘Counter-terrorism?'
Salmon nodded calmly. ‘That's really my field. I was at
it for four years. And then my face got known and it was safer to move on. Now I'm the Scotland Yard equivalent of a supply teacher.'
You can't have a casual conversation with a detective. They always read between the lines. Voss's eyes widened. ‘You were under cover?'
‘Yes.'
‘Wasn't that …pretty scary?'
‘Yes,' said Salmon again, briefly. He changed the subject. ‘How's the CCTV scan coming?'
Voss rolled his eyes. ‘The way they always do – slowly. I got Jill Meadows to take over this morning, but I'll have to relieve her when we go back. It's like air traffic control: no one should be expected to do it for too long.'
‘Anything helpful?'
‘Not yet. I've got Loomis leaving The Rose and getting into his car at quarter to ten. He heads up Rye Lane, we see him driving down Fisher Hill, then he disappears off the monitors. There are no cameras covering Shack Lane. But the timings suggest he went straight to the car park and met whoever killed him.'
‘So who do we see driving
up
Fisher Hill at quarter to ten?'
Voss shrugged. ‘A lot of people. It's the main thoroughfare at that end of town. If you're on the Promenade and heading for a pub, chances are you'll go up Fisher Hill. There's also a gym, and you can go that way to the cash machine outside the bank. We're not going to ID every car on the tapes. The best we can do is look for one behaving suspiciously.'
Salmon nodded. That was realistic. CCTV has proved an excellent weapon in combating town-centre crime but – like every weapon – it has limitations. You can see where someone goes, as long as they stay in sight of the cameras. You can see who they speak to; you can't know what they say. And a man who obeyed speed limits and traffic lights after burying a knife in someone's lung might never be spotted.
‘Go back a bit,' suggested the DI, ‘see who Loomis met earlier that evening. Maybe he went to Shack Lane as a consequence of some earlier event.'
In fact Voss had already thought of that. It was what he was planning to do this afternoon.
 
When Division sent Deacon on gardening leave they overlooked the fact that he didn't have a garden. So while it was possible to replace him as senior investigating officer on the Loomis case, they couldn't stop him thinking about it.
Brodie didn't mind him thinking about it. She minded him thinking about it in her house, getting under her feet. He'd come with her this morning to bring Jonathan home, and she understood that he wanted to spend time with his son. He was holding him now. But he held the baby as he might have stacked a bunch of box-files on his knee, and instead of talking to him, or even about him, rumbled on endlessly about what was now somebody else's murder case. Jonathan didn't seem to mind. He smiled complacently, his bandaged eyes shaded by the peak of a jaunty cap, but Brodie minded for him. Her fund of patience, never bottomless, was lower by the day.
Oblivious of her train of thought, Deacon tried stammering his way through all the options. He'd bought a pocket dictionary to help. ‘D-d-d-drugs?'
‘That's a dying man's last utterance?' said Brodie sceptically. ‘That cost him blood and just about the last breath he ever drew? He might try that hard to give us a name but not the motive. Especially when it tells us nothing new.
Everyone
knows Joe Loomis was dealing drugs. The dogs in the street knew it. How would it help to tell us that?'
Deacon nodded. It was something no one would ever say. The dying man would have tried to name his killer if he could; or if he didn't know his name, to describe him or something distinctive about him. ‘The make of his car? Daihatsu, Daewoo – Daimler?'
Brodie shook her head. ‘That's pretty sophisticated thinking for a man running on empty. It would be nice if he'd got the number plate, but I don't think it was that either. I think he knew his killer. I think we were right all along – we're looking for someone beginning with D.'
Deacon had got used to the fact that Brodie treated his work as if it were a little sideline of hers, to be toyed with when she had time. He no longer bothered to challenge that
we
. ‘D-d-d …Dev?'
‘Dev Stretton is a man in his mid-twenties,' said Brodie dismissively, ‘Loomis would call him by his surname. If he'd stabbed Loomis, Joe would have been stammering
S-s-s
…'
It wasn't enough for Deacon to eliminate Stretton from his inquiries. But he knew Brodie was better at people
than he was, and she had a good instinct for probabilities. ‘There just aren't that many names beginning with D,' he complained. ‘There's me. There's Daniel. There's Dev Stretton. I can't think of anyone else.'
Brodie turned just long enough to fix him with a cool eye. ‘If that's your choice, your next move is clear. Arrest yourself on suspicion. Lock yourself up where you'll no longer be a danger to the public. And in the meantime, will you for pity's sake straighten that child's hat? He can't see a thing …'
The echo of the words rocked her heart, filling the room like the dust and silence after an explosion. Her cheeks drew thin and her eyes filled with grief and tears.
Clumsy as always in the realm of the emotions, Deacon tried to comfort her. ‘Don't punish yourself. It isn't – it doesn't … It doesn't matter. We're
going
to say stupid things. This is new to us. We haven't had a blind child before. Hell, I haven't had a
child
before – I don't know what you say when they're normal!'
The problem with Jack Deacon and Brodie Farrell as a couple – their tragedy, if you like – was that they only worked as lovers, not as friends. If they'd been two men, or two women, they'd never have sought out one another's company. They didn't understand one another well enough, had no tolerance for each other's mistakes. The same words from Daniel would have drawn a watery smile and Brodie would have taken reassurance from them. But on Deacon's lips they grated, and she slapped at the irritation like swatting a wasp.
‘Don't tell me how to feel! You want to know what's
normal? This is normal – hurting when they hurt, wanting to protect them from harm, feeling a failure when you can't. He's just a little boy, Jack! He's six months old. He was born with problems, and things have gone downhill since. And it
feels
like it's my fault. For eight months everything he is, everything he's ever going to be, was in my hands. And I couldn't keep him safe. Just eight months. He didn't even demand the full penalty that the law allows – he gave me time off for bad behaviour! But in those eight months I conceived him when I didn't mean to, I exposed him to the dangers of my business and I damn near delivered him in someone's front garden! Don't tell me none of that matters. My son is suffering, and is going to go on suffering, because of it.'
‘Even if all that was true,' said Deacon quietly, ‘it still wouldn't make it your fault. He played contraception roulette and won – which made him one in a thousand before he was even born. It also makes him a determined little sod: remember that. And we don't know if the attack on you was responsible for his eyes or not. Even if it was, so what? The drugs weren't something jolly for the weekend, they were an attempt on your life. You did nothing wrong. You didn't even do anything stupid. You were unlucky. Jonathan was unlucky. Now we deal with it. But we don't deal with it by blaming ourselves.'
But Brodie wouldn't be mollified. ‘That's easy for you to say. You can walk away tomorrow. Any time this gets too difficult you can find yourself a nice serial killer somewhere and switch off. I can't. Jonathan can't. We're in it for the long haul. And yes, maybe that means I find it hard to be
objective. I'm sorry to be such a bore.'
Deacon couldn't believe she'd use that against him. He'd have married her two years ago if she'd been willing. He tried very hard to marry her before Jonathan was born. The continued irregularity of their situation was entirely her choice. It was impertinence on a jaw-dropping scale to accuse him of lack of commitment now.
‘Brodie – I'm going nowhere,' he managed. ‘I'm here for you, as long as you want me; and I'm here for Jonathan whether you want me or not. What do you want me to do – weep into my hanky every time I look at him? Of course I'm sorry he's got problems. But with or without them, he's my son and I love him. I love just sitting here with him on my knee, and if his stupid little hat falls in his face of course I'll straighten it. But I don't want to load everything that happens to us from now on with tragic significance because he's blind. He's not a burden, and he's not a freak. He's just a baby who can't see.'
By now Brodie was feeling ashamed of herself. Which didn't help: she didn't handle self-criticism well, perhaps because she didn't practise enough. She should have been touched, not only by how he felt but that he would try to explain it to her. Deacon was a notoriously private man: saying what he just had must have been terribly difficult. But instead of applauding his effort Brodie felt diminished by it. As if parenthood was a competitive sport and there could only be one winner.
‘I don't even know what you're doing here,' she snarled. ‘A man died in my office – why aren't you out looking for the killer?'
She did know: he'd told her. Clinging on to his patience, he told her again. ‘They wanted me off the case.
Because
he died in your office; and because he'd threatened you, and because of what you heard him say. D-dd …'
Brodie had to grit her teeth quite hard to keep from screaming.
And then she had a stroke of absolute genius. Her whole face changed. She went from wanting to deck him with the iron and bury him under the patio to seeing hope for the future in the blink of an eye. ‘Jack,' she said, and even her voice was different, ‘you're not going anywhere for ten minutes, are you?'
Two sentences ago she'd been ready to throw him out. Deacon had every reason to be confused. ‘No-o-o …'
‘Good,' she beamed. ‘Then will you look after Jonathan? I need to see Daniel.'
He might not have been in. The job took him out and about a lot. She didn't phone first because she couldn't face the disappointment if she'd got the answering machine. If he was out she could find something to do in the office while she waited for him to get back. It was better than listening to Deacon stammering.

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