Martin Edwards: Yesterday's papers

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Martin Edwards Yesterday's papers
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    Yesterday's papers
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Martin Edwards

Yesterday's Papers

Where mystery begins, justice ends.

— Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society

Chapter One

I killed her many years ago

‘Mr Devlin, I would like to talk to you about a murder.’

Harry Devlin stopped in his tracks on his way out of the law courts. For a fantastic moment he thought the man who had hurried to catch him up and lay a hand on his shoulder was an arresting officer.

Twisting his neck to see his assailant, Harry found himself staring not at one of Liverpool’s finest but at a scrawny old man in a soup-stained bow tie and a shiny blue suit. Although he was wheezing with the exertion, his bony grip was surprisingly fierce, as if he feared Harry was about to take flight. The thick lenses of his spectacles magnified the shape and size of his eyes and made them seem not quite human.

Harry guessed the fellow was one of the city’s courthouse cranks who sat in the public galleries each morning and afternoon, watching scenes from other people’s lives distorted by the fairground mirrors of litigation. Most lawyers disdained the spectators as voyeurs, brushing by them in the corridors and on the stairs, but sometimes Harry would pause in passing to exchange a casual word. He could not resist feeling sympathy for anyone whose life was so barren that this place became a second home.

‘Want to make a confession?’ he asked and gestured towards a man in an overcoat striding past them towards the exit. ‘The detective sergeant there specialises in them. Don’t worry, he doesn’t need much. Just give him your name and he’ll invent the rest.’

The man released his hold and bared crooked teeth in a conspiratorial smile. His shoulders were stooped, his wrinkled skin the colour of parchment. In one claw-like hand he was carrying a battered black document case and his breath seemed to Harry to have the whiff of mildewed books.

‘It is your help I need, Mr Devlin. No-one else will do.’

He enunciated each syllable with pedantic care, as if English was not his native tongue. But it was the urgency of his tone that quickened Harry’s interest.

‘Are you in some kind of trouble?’

‘No, no. You misunderstand. The murder I am speaking of occurred almost thirty years ago. Nonetheless, I believe you are able — if you will pardon the phrase — to assist me with my enquiries.’

‘Thirty years ago?’ Harry shook his head. ‘I sometimes screamed blue murder as a babe in arms, but I never committed it. Sorry I can’t help, Mr…’

‘Miller, my name is Ernest Miller. Let me explain. I am looking into one of this city’s most notorious crimes. You will have heard of the case, I’m sure. The newspapers, in their melodramatic way, dubbed it the Sefton Park Strangling.’

‘It rings a bell.’ Harry sifted through old memories. ‘Wasn’t it a young girl who was killed, the daughter of a well-known man?’

‘Yes, the case attracted a great deal of publicity in its day. Carole Jeffries, the victim, was only sixteen years old. More importantly, to secure her lasting fame in death, she was a pretty girl with a good figure and a taste for short skirts.’

‘And I seem to remember the murderer was a neighbour of hers?’

‘A young man named Edwin Smith who lived nearby was arrested, it is true. Before long he confessed to having strangled Carole, but twenty-four hours before his trial was due to open, he tried to anticipate his fate by hanging himself. In that, as in so much else during his short life, he failed. A warder arrived in time to cut him down and save him for the gallows. Even so, the day of reckoning was postponed. Although the court proceedings were expected to be a formality, the authorities were reluctant to hang a man with an injured neck.’

‘The executioner preferred more of a challenge?’

‘I see you indulge in black humour, Mr Devlin. The best kind, I quite agree. But I think you miss the point. In those days — we are talking of 1964, you will recall — the campaign to abolish capital punishment was intensifying. The establishment dreaded a newsworthy incident.’

‘Such as?’

Miller’s tongue appeared between his teeth. ‘They feared that a mistake might be made. If undue pressure were applied on the scaffold, there was a risk that the neck might snap and Smith would lose his head. Imagine, Mr Devlin, how the media would have feasted on that.’

Miller’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, causing Harry to feel as cold as if he had stepped naked into the wintry streets outside, but something made him ask, ‘So what happened?’

‘The trial took place at the end of November and Smith was duly sentenced to death. However, as you will know, the law required three Sundays to pass before such a verdict could be carried out — and in the meantime the House of Commons voted to abolish capital punishment. As it happened, no hangings took place after the August of that year. Smith could certainly have expected a reprieve.’

‘A lucky man.’

‘Not so lucky as you may think,’ said Ernest Miller. ‘Having escaped the noose, Smith finally managed to kill himself in jail. Once again the authorities were careless — as they so often seem to be. He slashed his own throat on a jag of glass one night and severed the jugular vein.’

Harry bit his lip. His imagination was vivid — he had never quite decided whether that was an asset in a solicitor, or a fatal flaw — and Miller’s words made his skin prickle. He could not help seeing in his mind’s eye the sickening scene: the blood-soaked remains of a human being stretched across the concrete floor of a silent and unforgiving prison cell.

Gritting his teeth, he said, ‘So where do I come in?’

‘Smith’s solicitor was Cyril Tweats.’

No wonder he was found guilty, Harry said to himself, the thought easing his tension. But all he said aloud was, ‘I see.’

‘You begin to appreciate my interest? I gather Mr Tweats retired recently and your firm took over his practice. Which is why I wanted to take a little of your time to talk about Carole’s killing.’

‘I don’t quite…’

‘I wonder,’ said Miller. ‘Your case has been adjourned until tomorrow morning. Perhaps you might allow me to buy you a drink and give you an idea of the information I am seeking. And if, at the end of half an hour, you decide I am wasting your time, well, no hard feelings. What do you say?’

Harry hesitated. He knew how much work in the office awaited his return; if he missed the last post, the following morning the sight of a mound of unsigned correspondence would reproach him like the grubby face of a neglected child. Besides, he had been repelled by the impression of pleasure Miller had given in lingering over the phrase He slashed his own throat on a jag of glass one night and severed the jugular vein. It was easy to visualise him salivating as he waited for a judge to don the black cap.

He glanced back over his shoulder towards the ground-floor lobby. The judicial roulette wheel had stopped spinning for the day, leaving losers to sulk in their cells whilst winners walked free to celebrate in style. His clients, Kevin and Jeannie Walter, had already disappeared, whisked off to the city’s priciest restaurant by minders from the newspaper which had spent so much money to buy their story. He had last seen their barrister, Patrick Vaulkhard, in the robing room, taunting his opposite number about cover-ups and corruption. One of the bent coppers in the case was hanging around at the bottom of the open-tread staircase, waiting for his colleagues. With his hands in his pockets and his eyes fixed on the floor, he seemed deep in thought. If he had any sense, he was making plans for an early retirement.

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