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The Murder Bird
By Joanna Hines
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Joanna Hines
All rights reserved.
It was like it was happening in a dream.
Five weeks before Kirsten Waller's body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband. Paul Hobden, a large, blubbery whale of a man, was sleeping off the effects of a boozy lunch. In the corner of the room, a black and white film involving much swash and buckle was chattering quietly on the TV. While Douglas Fairbanks Jr swished his sword with laughing, lethal accuracy, Grace Hobden picked up a Sabatier filleting knife from the rack in her kitchen, went into the living room and, without hesitating for a moment, plunged the blade into the soft mound of her husband's chest.
He must have struggled to sit up at that point, though the first blow pierced the left ventricle of his heart and would have been fatal anyway: Grace was a qualified radiographer and knew her anatomy. The second blow struck his thorax at a forty-five degree angle, causing a large amount of blood to spill on to the check upholstery of the sofa, their new olive-grey carpet and, presumably, on to Grace herself. There was no need for a third blow.
When she had showered and changed, Grace gathered up her children—Angus, eight, Matthew, seven, and Susan who was only three—and told them they were going out for a treat. She drove them to the seaside, forty miles away, where they spent a pleasant afternoon playing beach cricket in the May sunshine, making sand castles and gorging on ice creams. Towards evening she phoned the police who were, in consequence, waiting for her when she got home.
'I couldn't take it any more,' she told them, as they contemplated the bloody remains of her husband. 'It was like it was happening in a dream.'
Raph Howes leafed through the stack of papers with mounting disbelief. His shirt was soaked with sweat, and not just because of the late summer heat. What in the name of all glory was his clerk thinking of? Like everyone else in chambers, Dermot was well aware that in the two months since Kirsten's midsummer death, Raph had avoided domestic briefs. And who would blame him? As he looked at the photographs of Paul Hobden's blood-streaked body, both gory and faintly ridiculous, it was Kirsten's corpse he kept seeing in his mind's eye. Always beautiful, even in death, with that cool, Scandinavian fairness, she was naked, one leg sprawled over the rim of the bath, head thrown back, not a trace of blood anywhere. But dead all the same. Horribly and irrevocably dead.
He stood up angrily and began pacing between the desks in his room. Even before his estranged wife's death, he'd always loathed this kind of brief. Domestic murders were too messy, too personal, too painful. Just imagine those three little innocents larking about in the garden while twenty yards away their mother dropped a bloodstained curtain on their childhood. If the poor little wretches had ever had a childhood.
Those kind of events don't strike your normal, everyday sort of family. No way.
Raph's throat was turning dry as the implications unfolded. Perspiration rolled down his cheeks. His nostrils detected a faint but unmistakable smell of burning; some witless bastard must have lit an early bonfire.
He leaned down, pushed the papers across his desk and shouted for Dermot to remove them. No one came.
A photograph slid loose from the pile. In her early thirties, Grace Hobden was pretty in an unremarkable kind of way; the woman who had lethally skewered her husband had a round face with stubby features. There was nothing in her appearance to indicate she was the kind of woman who should on no account be left alone with a sharp knife and a sleeping husband.
But then, as Raph knew, murderers seldom look the part.
She seemed lost and bewildered, as well she might. He glared at the photograph from a safe distance. How long had it taken, he wondered. Thirty seconds? Two minutes? How long does it take to commit the irreversible act that changes the lives of a whole family for ever?
He might have talked about it before. With Kirsten.
In the time when it was still okay for them to talk about murder.
'Dermot!' he yelled again, walking to the window. No air in here. That was the problem. Where was the man? Why didn't he just take the bloody stuff away?
Raph ran a stubby finger under his collar. Sweat spilled on to his knuckles. He couldn't deal with stress like he used to. Somewhere in the distance a dog was barking, that steady, unrelenting barking of a dog that is chained up, or trapped, or desperate ... Barking as if its life depended on it.
The case would stand or fall depending on how Grace Hobden came across in court. For obvious reasons it was always difficult to prove self-defence or lack of premeditation when the victim was asleep at the time of the attack—difficult, but not impossible. The most promising line would be that she'd been driven to it over months and years of violence and abuse until suddenly, one breezy May morning, she snapped.
A phrase from her statement had stuck in his brain.
'I just couldn't take it any more ...'
Take what? Paul Hobden's parents and sister claimed he was gentle as a lamb—but then they would say that, wouldn't they? Families never square up to the truth and state, 'He was a monster and deserved to die.' In her statement, Grace sketched a picture of a sadist and a bully. She had the bruises on her legs to prove it. Cigarette burns on her left hand. She said it was the psychological torture that was the hardest to bear.
Raph's heart was pounding and it was getting harder to breathe. These rooms in chambers were always impossibly hot in summer. He'd open the window but he didn't want to let in any more of that damned smoke. And where the hell was it coming from anyway?
'Dermot! For God's sake, man!'
Why didn't someone shut that bloody dog up?
Dermot Mercer pulled the chain and closed the lavatory door behind him just as Raph yelled for the third time. Dermot had very definite views about being shouted at by his barristers, all of them negative. His features, which even when he was in a good mood resembled those of an anxious hamster, grew more pinched and inward-looking. He moved fast, however. Raph's third shout generated urgency: the adrenaline kick of panic. 'What is it, Mr Howes? Is something wrong?' A rhetorical question. He looked like everything was wrong. As a young man, Raph Howes had had the dark hair and swarthy good looks that might have suited a pirate in another century; since entering his fifth decade, he'd put on weight, his jaw was heavier under the blue shadow of stubble and his physical movements had slowed. Mentally, though, especially up against a worthy adversary in court, he was as agile and dangerous as ever.
Which made it all the more shocking for Dermot to see him like this.
'You're not well, Mr Howes.'
'Fine ... perfectly fine ... just take that damn brief away—' But as Dermot reached down to remove the stack of papers, Raph banged his fist on the desk. Dermot's hand grazed the fine hairs on Raph's fingers; he drew back as though stung.
Raph's eyebrows collided in a frown. 'Who sent them?'
'Alan Caulder at Fergal and Smith. He was very insistent.'
'You know I said no murders. Not since ...'
He didn't need to finish. Dermot knew what he meant. Since Kirsten's death. Even though no one else had been involved, that too had been a murder of a kind. Self-murder: the old-fashioned term for suicide. Dermot should have been more sensitive: two months on and the man was still hurting. 'Bob Holles made me promise you'd look at it. He's been convinced you've got the golden touch ever since you got that GBH client a suspended sentence. I'll take them away.'
'No. Wait.' Raph dropped down in his chair. He was breathing heavily.
Dermot went to open the window. It was airless in here; that was the trouble.
'Don't!' croaked Raph.
'But I thought—'
'That damn smoke is making my throat sore.'
'Smoke?' Dermot sniffed the air: traffic fumes, warm dust from pavements, maybe some pollen. But definitely no smoke.
'Some moron's lit a bonfire ...' Raph's frown deepened as he registered his error.
Dermot said quietly, 'The Middle Temple's not exactly famous for its bonfires, Mr Howes', before adding, 'It was probably someone passing with a cigar.' He threw the window wide and smutty summer air gusted in.
'I must have imagined it,' said Raph. He rubbed his palm across his mouth, before muttering, 'And the dog ...'
'Dog? What dog?'
Raph shifted, avoiding his eye. 'Just some damned dog.' He looked so bewildered that Dermot felt embarrassed, as though he'd caught him unexpectedly naked. Raph said, 'Look, now the instructions are here, you might as well leave them with me. I'll glance through them.'
'But I thought you said—?'
'I haven't made up my mind.'
'Let me give it to one of the girls. This would be right up Selina's street.'
'I said I'd look, didn't I? Just leave the stuff here.'
When Raph Howes spoke in that tone, no one argued with him. Dermot withdrew and returned to his office, but he was troubled. Dermot couldn't have the man cracking up on him: Raph brought in more money than most of the other barristers in his chambers put together. Dermot should have been more careful. From now on, no matter how persuasive solicitors were, he'd make sure Raph was fed a bland diet of armed robbery and corruption. With maybe a touch of arson for light relief.
If he'd known what his clerk was thinking, Raph would have been in full agreement. He needed Grace Hobden like he needed a hole in the head. Or in the heart.
Her story had all the ingredients he most loathed: the cosy domestic setting; vulnerable children who were going to lose out, no matter what; a messy dissection of family entrails—ugh, he'd be mad to take it on. Dermot was right: one of his female colleagues would jump at the chance to defend her.
The sensible course of action would be to tell Dermot he must be coming down with some kind of bug and take the Basle fraud papers to work on at home. Home meant Lola, who'd talk to him about leg-waxing, or the love life of her friends, and he could lose himself for a few hours in his girlfriend's blissful inanities. Young, with a perfect body and a quite remarkably insignificant mind, Lola had drifted into his life at a time of crisis and had stayed because she offered an unlikely bastion against the torment that had almost destroyed him. Be prudent. Grace Hobden was not for him.
He watched, detached and mildly curious, as his hand reached out and pulled the Hobden brief towards him.
'It was like it was happening in a dream.'
Utter madness to take this case on. And it was a well-known fact that Raph Howes was a supremely rational man.
His throat was still sore. From the smoke. Only there wasn't any. Nor any dog.
He spread the papers in a fan on the desk.
It was the details that always got to you. The fact that Paul Hobden had boxed when he was in the navy and had been teaching his two sons to box the day before his death. The fact that Grace Hobden spent the afternoon before her arrest playing beach cricket and making sand castles, as though nothing at all was wrong. Asked about it later, she said she wanted the children to have some fun before 'things got a bit sticky'. The fact that her father had died ten days earlier. Maybe he could use that in her defence.
But, dear God, before things got a bit sticky! At moments of intense crisis, when you might expect the human spirit to come up with a tirade of Shakespearean grandeur, what did you get? Sheer banality. It was like it was happening in a dream. And it wasn't just the mute immortal Grace Hobdens of this world, either. What had been his own reaction when he heard about Kirsten's death? 'Oh no!' Just that. Oh no. An immediate and succinct denial of the tragedy. Oh no. The two most heartbreaking words in the English language.
(There were others, of course. I'm sorry, Daddy. I didn't mean to ... please don't.)
A few years back, Raph had defended a young man who had taken it upon himself to murder a passing stranger with a bolt from a crossbow through the chest. When asked why, he replied calmly, 'I didn't like the way he looked at me.'
Yes, well ... As people slip and slither through the thin crust of civilization into the depths of horror beneath, what paucity of language accompanies their fall.
Grace Hobden, he noticed, was described by a neighbour as a woman of few words. Who kept to herself, naturally.
He knew the type. Keep it private.
He'd have to find a way of using that in her defence, too.
What defence? What was he thinking of? The blood was pumping through his veins. Don't—pump— even—pump—go there—pump pump.
Too late. He'd gone already.
A strange silence was settling round him, the deep, numbing silence like snowfall, the silence that follows on after catastrophe.
It was the wrong murder, of course. He'd known that right away. It was always the wrong murder.
He reached for a pad of paper, took a fountain pen from his breast pocket, and began making notes in his elegant, small script. The law and all its certainties was a never-failing refuge; the unbearable chaos of human grief reduced to a legal game. A game he happened to be good at winning. Raph Howes had come a long way.
And as he wrote he wondered, did the Hobden family have a dog?
A small boy runs through the grass. Long wet grass that soaks his bare knees. There's an unbearable ache in his chest. Fear and grief and he's out of breath from running so far. All the way from the road. In his arms a dead weight—and in his heart, terror. Up ahead, the house. Where Daddy will be waiting. 'I'm sorry, Daddy. I didn't mean to ... Don't be angry, Daddy, please don't—'CHAPTER 2
I had to do it.
On the back wall of Raph's house, halfway between the first and second floors, Sam almost quit.
The security light had come on and she felt exposed as a starfish on a rock. She'd gambled that the bathroom window above the kitchen would be ajar, but no luck. It was shut tight and locked from within. She daren't risk breaking glass until she was out of range of the security light, which meant going higher.
Twenty feet above the ground and serious vertigo kicked in. Her heart was hammering. This wasn't one of those useful, theatrical creepers that Romeos shin up, easy as a ladder; it was liable to give way at any moment. The paving stones below would make a hard landing. She imagined falling, her skull splitting on Raph's tasteful York stone patio.
Focus. Don't think
Spreading her arms wide, she gripped a handful of creeper in each fist and leaned her cheek against the summer-warmed stone of the building. Vertigo gave her the illusion she could launch herself from the wall like a fledgling and fly. Don't do it. Breathe. Stay calm. Take your time.
No choice now, anyway, since going down is always harder. Besides, there was too much at stake to think of quitting.
On the far side of the house the traffic on Holland Park Avenue droned steadily. Even at two o'clock in the morning it never let up.
Grimly, slowly, testing each branch before trusting it with her weight, Sam edged higher. Her backpack bumped against her spine, skewing her balance. The hammer she'd stuck in her belt was digging into her ribs. Now her head and shoulders were clear of the security light. Now her body.
The next time she reached up, the knuckles of her right hand grazed the underside of a stone ledge. A windowsill. Pray God, let this window be open, just a crack.
She moved to the left, so she'd come at it from the side.
She was just reaching across, when the wall exploded in noise as a shriek of feathers skimmed past her cheek. She let go and floated free for a moment, muscles slacked with shock, and stared down into the pool of light below. She almost plunged, but at the last moment her fingers caught hold of the branch and clung on, while her heart pumped and the terrified blackbird screeched off into the night.
Damned bird ... she was gasping ... it had almost killed her.
A cold slick of fear covered her body as she gripped the creeper, sheer willpower holding her there till her thumping heart was steady enough for the final push.
The security light went out. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness.
In her nightmares, when she had to cross a missing space in the floor, it was always dark, darker even than this. Blind eyes looking into blackness.
Excerpted from The Murder Bird by Joanna Hines. Copyright © 2006 Joanna Hines. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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