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Trick of the Dark
By Val McDermid
Bywater BooksCopyright © 2011 Val McDermid
All right reserved.
Once upon a time, Charlie had been more than a little in love with Dr. Corinna Newsam. There were several very good reasons behind an infatuation that had lasted for most of her first year at St Scholastika’s College. Corinna, the college’s junior philosophy fellow, was the smartest woman she’d ever met. She was also the least stuffy academic, the most challenging conversationalist and the most demanding teacher Charlie had encountered. She was charmed by Corinna’s Canadian accent, in awe of her mind and attracted by her sardonic smile. The husband, four children and adamantine Catholicism were mere details that barely impinged on Charlie’s dreamy fantasies. And she never noticed that, like the family, she was entirely under Corinna’s thumb.
And now she was going to have to pluck up the courage to call her. It wouldn’t have been such a trial six months before, when Charlie had still been someone with a decent professional reputation, albeit tinged with a degree of notoriety. But now? Charlie stared at the phone and sighed.
"Oh, bugger,” Charlie muttered, reaching for the handset. This time of day, Corinna should still be in college.
"St Scholastika’s College. How may I help you?” The burr of a local accent that sounded as if it had escaped from a BBC costume drama.
"I’d like to speak to Dr. Newsam,” Charlie said, more brusque than she’d intended.
"May I ask who’s calling?”
"Dr. Charlotte Flint.”
"Dr. Flint? How nice to hear you. One moment, I’ll see if Dr. Newsam’s available.”
Bloody Oxford. Never lets you go. Charlie waited, hollow silence in her ear. Nothing as tacky as canned muzak for her alma mater. She’d almost given up when she heard a sharp click followed by a familiar drawl. "Charlie? Is that really you?”
"Corinna,” she said, taken aback by the warmth she suddenly felt. "But you’re not really surprised, are you?”
"That depends on why you’re calling.”
The joust was on. Charlie felt tired at the thought of it. She moved in a different world these days, and she preferred it. "I’m calling because you sent me a package of newspaper clippings,” she said. "About the trial of the two people who allegedly murdered Magda’s husband on their wedding day.”
"Why would I do that?” Corinna sounded as if this were no more important than a routine tutorial inquiry about some detail of an essay.
"I think it was a challenge, Corinna. Given what you sent, would I be able to figure out who had sent it? And why? You did it because you’re a philosopher. You’ve grown so accustomed to setting everyone tests and challenges that you’ve forgotten how to ask a straight question.”
"And what could my motivation for such a challenge possibly be?” Charlie thought she could hear tension in Corinna’s voice now, but she couldn’t swear to it.
"I’m not sure,” she said. "But I did track down one photograph that gave me pause. I think if I was a mother and my daughter was running around with Jay Macallan Stewart, I’d be shouting for the cavalry. Now, I know I’m not everybody’s idea of the cavalry, but I’m probably all you could think of at short notice.”
There was no humour in Corinna’s laugh. "I thought my memory was still reliable. You always had a gift for investigation and resolution. It’s good to see the years have only sharpened it. Well done, Charlie.”
"What’s all this about, Corinna? Apart from me being your self-fulfilling prophecy?”
"I need your help.”
Charlie sighed. "It’s seventeen years since I graduated, Corinna. You don’t know anything about me.”
"I know enough, Charlie. I feel pretty certain you’ve got a burning desire to redeem yourself right now.”
Charlie closed her eyes and massaged her forehead. "That’s a little presumptuous, don’t you think?”
A moment’s silence, then Corinna spoke crisply. "We know you here, Charlie. And there is a strong feeling among the senior members in college that you have been made a scapegoat. That you have in fact acted with honour and honesty. It may have been uncomfortable, but it was right to stand up for Bill Hopton’s innocence when he was actually innocent. It’s not your fault he went on his killing spree afterwards.”
"Some might disagree with you,” Charlie said, her voice weary. "Some might say it was his very experiences at the hands of those of us involved in law enforcement that sent him over the edge.”
"Speaking as a philosopher, I find that an untenable proposition,” Corinna said briskly. "Now, there’s nothing we can do to help you professionally, obviously. Although I’m sure, where influence exists, it’s being brought to bear. But what I can do is offer you the chance to be useful. To use your skills for good, if you like.”
Charlie didn’t know why, but she felt like laying her head on the desk and weeping. "I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re on about, Corinna. And I’m pretty sure I don’t want to.”
"Charlie, we can help each other here. But a phone call isn’t the way to do this. Come and talk to me. Come to Oxford for the weekend.”
"I don’t think so, Corinna.”
"All I’m asking is that you listen to me, Charlie. I understand the reason you do what you do. It’s because you have a desire to protect the vulnerable. Right now, Charlie, my daughter has never been more vulnerable. Can your conscience really afford any more burdens?”
"That’s a very poor effort at emotional blackmail, Corinna.”
"You said yourself if you had a daughter who was running around with Jay Macallan Stewart, you’d be shouting for help. That’s all I’m doing here.”
"I understand that. But I’m not the person to help with this. I don’t know how to break up Magda and Jay Stewart.”
"I’m not asking you to separate my daughter from Jay Macallan Stewart,” Corinna said, sounding ruffled for the first time. "I wouldn’t be so crass. What I’m asking is that you bring your talents to bear on uncovering that truth. At heart, this is about a miscarriage of justice. I thought you still cared about that kind of thing, Charlie.”
It doesn’t take long for silence on a phone to loom large. After a few empty seconds, Charlie said, "I don’t understand.”
"Paul Barker and Joanna Sanderson did not kill my son-in-law, Charlie. The jury’s out today, the evidence is stacked against them. They’re going to jail. And it’s wrong.”
"Haven’t you left it a bit late to try and drag me into this? If it was really about avoiding a miscarriage of justice, surely you should have called me weeks ago.”
Corinna’s exasperated sigh was not unfamiliar to Charlie. "This hasn’t exactly been easy for me. I thought it would be thrown out of court. I had no idea how far . . . Look, Charlie, what matters here is that the two people in the dock are innocent. They didn’t kill Philip.”
Charlie couldn’t help herself. "Who did?”
"Some things don’t work over the phone. Come and talk to me, Charlie.”
Hook, line and sinker, Charlie thought. Here we go again.
Excerpted from Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid Copyright © 2011 by Val McDermid. Excerpted by permission.
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