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THE MORNING THAT my closest friend Gabe is charged with the attempted murder of a seventeen-year-old straight-A schoolboy, I am taking the last will and testament of a dying millionaire who is, I believe, the most frightened man I have ever met.
His name is William Gove and he is lying on his back, his sickly wasted skin stretched tight across a nose which might once have been proud. His hands clutch a rosary weakly, green veins under waxed-paper skin. We are in his bedroom on the first floor of his mansion, surrounded by antique furniture, heavy drapes at the windows, although his bed is modern, tubular, metal. I am at his side on a velvet-upholstered chair which looks French and is so delicately wrought that I am afraid that my bulk might break it.
'Mr Connell,' he says, 'are you a Catholic?' He watches me without blinking, his eyes watery and yellow, the blue iris pale and indistinct. His voice trembles.
'No,' I say.
He nods, closes his eyes briefly, sighs. 'So few of us, in these parts.' Makes him sound as if he is a defender of the faith from Reformation days. He worries his rosary beads and they snick gently in the quiet of the room. 'But you have heard of mortal sin?'
'I've heard of it,' I say.
'A sin which is committed with full knowledge and complete consent. You have heard it described thus?'
Described thus. The way this man speaks, he might as well be from a different century. His hands on his bedcover shake.
'Mr Gove,' I begin. I have not come here to take his confession; I want to finish our business as quickly as possible and get away from him, from his desperate presence, his smell of fear and imminent death. 'I have prepared everything. I just need your signature. But before that, I do need to be sure that this really is what you want.'
He does not reply. His eyes are closed and I wonder whether he has given up the ghost; I would not be surprised. He is as close to dying as anybody I have ever seen, kept alive only by the sucking of the various machines he is plugged into.
'Mr Gove,' I say again, but he opens his eyes and glares at me with a fierceness driven by terror.
'A hell is waiting for me,' he says, a panicked whisper. 'A place beyond your imagination. You do understand this?'
He continues to watch me and as our silence grows I have to admit that, sick as this man is, he is capable of posing questions that are very difficult to respond to.
William Gove is the owner of one of the largest fruit orchards in Essex, a vast estate extending over a thousand acres and with a heritage which reaches back to the middle of the eighteenth century; the Gove family is one of the oldest and most respectable in the county. For centuries they have occupied the first pews of the nearest Catholic church, had the ear of the authorities, shaped laws, held sway over their workers' lives. But looking at him gasp at the air above his bed I am reminded of the saying about rich people entering heaven. He does not appear to rate his chances of getting into paradise, and there is something in the defiant set of his head, the authoritarian manner covering his abject fear, which makes me believe he has a point. This man, sick as he is, does not strike me as heaven material.
'Mr Gove, I just want to go over your will,' I say. 'In a case like this —'
'Like this?' he says.
'Unusual,' I say, 'and changed at ...' I wonder how to frame what I have to say with delicacy, decide that it is impossible, 'this late stage.'
Gove smiles at this, his thin lips showing a line of dried salt; he has not drunk enough from the plastic straw angled towards his face. 'Ah,' he says. He does not say anything more, plays with his rosary beads.
'Your liquid assets,' I say, 'totalling two point seven million sterling. You have decided to distribute them evenly between ten people, ten strangers, who you chose at random from the telephone directory.'
'Correct.' He looks directly at the ceiling, does not meet my eye.
'You do understand that this will lead to some ... speculation,' I say.
'That I have lost my mind?'
'That you are non compos mentis, yes. Like I say, it is unusual.'
'They say that charity is the first and greatest of the virtues,' Gove says. 'Perhaps you have heard that?'
I shake my head, but he is still gazing at the ceiling so I say, 'No. But —'
'Tell me, Mr Connell. Why would anybody wonder why I, a devoted and contrite Catholic, would not want to leave my wealth to better the lives of others?'
'Unfortunately, Mr Gove, that is not the question they will be asking.' I lean closer to him, but still he stares directly upwards. 'Instead they'll be wondering, quite naturally, why you didn't choose to evenly distribute your wealth between your three children.'
But before Gove can respond to this, we are interrupted by a young woman who enters his bedroom without knocking and inspects the white machines that surround his bed, clucking her tongue. She looks down at him without affection or sympathy, flicks his drinking straw with an orange-painted nail.
'Drink,' she says in an accent which might be Nigerian.
'You go to hell,' he hisses at her with a force which surprises me. She does not respond to this insult, does not even blink; I suspect she has become inured to this treatment, although I am shocked by the malice in Gove's voice. Heaven is looking further away by the second.
She lifts a corner of Gove's bedcovers and peers underneath, sniffs in disdain. She looks across his bed at me. 'Come back. Five minutes.'
William Gove's home is a three-storey Georgian mansion with two round wings like turrets either side of the main building; it is at the end of a long gravel driveway and must have at least twenty bedrooms. I wait outside Gove's room at the top of a wide staircase which sweeps down to a black-and-white-tiled entrance hall you could fit most of my house into.
There is a huge window next to me which looks out over the drive; I suspect that everything I can see out of it is owned by William Gove, right up to the horizon. I pace uncomfortably, do not wish to sit down; this place is a world away from my normal business, small-town lawyering for small-time clients: visas and conveyancing and ambulance-chasing. I was referred this case by an ex-colleague from a large City firm which did not want to go anywhere near Gove's bizarre will, did not want to be associated with the inevitable publicity once the papers got hold of the story: Essex fruit-grower turns fruitcake, gives his fortune away to strangers. I do not care about bad PR; I care more about bad cheques. And William Gove, scared and odious as he is, is not a man whose resources I need to worry about.
The nurse, if that is what she is, leaves Gove's room and passes me without saying anything, which I take to mean that I am free to go back in. The place is so thickly carpeted that her passing makes no sound and I can hear nothing but the artificial respiration of Gove's machines, a steady suck and sigh. I push open his door, and that too makes no sound. Gove is lying still. I wonder again if he has gone, slipped away; or perhaps the nurse spent her five minutes with a pillow over his face.
But as I sit down he takes a deep and shuddery breath and when he opens his eyes I can see that he is on the verge of losing it, that fear has nearly overwhelmed him and it is only through a supreme effort of will that he manages to control his voice.
'How is it that they can keep me alive?'
I do not know how to respond to such a question, do not want to answer. Instead I take papers from my briefcase, find a pen.
'My wife,' he says, 'died twenty years ago. From the first visit to the hospital they said that there was nothing they could do. How is it they can keep me alive?'
'Mr Gove, I need you to sign these papers.'
'Money,' he says. 'I offered them everything. They just looked at me.'
I do not want to listen to this man; is this not what priests are for? I stand up, show him the papers that I am holding.
'I'm sorry, Mr Gove ...'
He nods, sighs and presses a button which causes his bed to whine and tilt up so that he is in a sitting position. He holds out a hand and I give him the pen, the first sheet for him to sign.
'So many papers,' he says, 'over my lifetime. Contracts, agreements, the deals I have made.' He scribbles his signature and I take the paper, pass him the next. 'Do you think that a man can make a deal with the afterlife?'
He looks up at me and drops the pen and his expression is as needy and supplicatory as a child's. I look down at him and he seems small and vulnerable and very, very frightened. I pick up the pen and put it back in his weak hand which is trembling and I cannot think of anything to say to him.
At the bottom of the stairs a man and a woman are waiting for me, two of William Gove's children. I know them by sight, have been introduced to them: Luke, the elder son, and Saskia. They watch me as I walk down the stairs and I have a strange feeling of trespass, as if I have been caught rifling through the jewellery and they are waiting to deal with me, put me in my place. My habitual unease around the wealthy and privileged.
'Mr Connell,' says Luke. He is in his mid-thirties and wearing a green polo shirt, and his face is tanned and handsome, Ray-Bans pushed up over his slicked-back hair.
'Mr Gove,' I say.
'Luke, please,' he says. 'How is he?'
I am momentarily stuck for something to say; 'dying' does not seem like the right response but no other seems appropriate. Saskia sees my discomfort, laughs.
'He tell you he was going to hell?' she says.
'He mentioned it.'
'Christ's sake,' says Luke.
'Do you believe in hell, Mr Connell?' she says. She smiles and tilts her head, and there is something so sly in her expression, her dark eyes so knowingly taunting, that I cannot help but smile back.
'I'm a lawyer. I'm not paid to have an opinion.'
She laughs again and turns to Luke, who nods but there is no warmth in his eyes. 'What did he want with you?' he says.
I shake my head. 'You know the rules. Client confidentiality.'
'How about I take your briefcase, find out for myself?' He is smiling, but there is no humour in his voice, and Saskia puts a hand on his arm, which is bronzed and muscular.
Perhaps an upbringing of privilege has led him to expect that he can throw his weight about, but he is at least five stone lighter than me and I am willing to bet that he has seen a lifetime's less violence. I smile back at him and offer my briefcase with one hand. 'Give it a try.'
Saskia steps between us, says, 'Boys, boys,' lightly. She turns to Luke and places both palms flat on his chest, a strangely intimate gesture. 'Let's all be lovely.'
Luke nods slowly, looks at me. 'That your car outside?'
My car is the only one parked on the driveway; it is also nearly ten years old and nudging 100,000 miles with an exhaust which will not pass its next inspection. I do not reply.
'It's making the place look untidy,' says Luke. He places his Ray-Bans over his eyes. 'Next time you're here, would you park around the back?'
There is a buzz in my ears as I walk out of the Goves' mansion towards my car and the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet seems to come from a long way away. My hands tingle and my heart is beating so fast that it seems to cloud my vision even though the day is hot and bright. Thinking of bouncing Luke Gove's head against the banister of his staircase, watching his eyes lose their assurance as fear and humiliation steal in, makes me clench my fists so hard that one of my nails pierces my skin.
That he said it in front of her only makes it worse; I have never, I do not think, seen eyes with such life, such impish vivacity. Saskia Gove may be well into her thirties but she has within her some quality which makes me wish that I had worn a better suit today, had a haircut more recently. Did not drive the car that I do.
I am saved from my dark thoughts of humiliation and retribution by my mobile ringing. I take it from my pocket, put it to my ear.
'Yeah. Daniel, I think I'm going to need you.'
I HAVE HEARD people say that corruption has a smell, that it can be physically sensed. I do not believe this, but from the moment I am shown into the interview room and meet the two police detectives in charge of Gabe's case, I have a feeling that something is not right. The way that they stand, arms crossed in front of them. The complacent grins on their faces, the lazy challenge in their eyes. Anybody who wears such open disdain for others is a law unto themselves and nothing more.
'Connell?' one of them says. He is overweight and radiates contempt as he would body odour after five minutes on a treadmill.
'And you are?'
He yawns, a fat hand over his mouth. Gabe is sitting at a table next to the wall and he has not yet looked at me. The interview room is brightly lit, the walls a pale green. There are four chairs, two either side of the table. The policemen are at the back of the room, leaning against the far wall. The overweight man yawns again. I wait for him to finish.
'DI Doolan,' he says. 'This here's DI Akram. You know your client?'
I do not reply, look at Gabe. 'You all right?'
Gabe smiles, fixes me with his pale eyes. He looks tired. 'Surviving.'
'Don't say anything else,' I say. I turn to the policemen. 'He doesn't have anything to drink.'
DI Akram shrugs. He is a slim, handsome Asian man with eyes which smile drowsily and lips which are turned up as if he is remembering a joke. 'Didn't ask for one.'
'Well,' I say, sitting down on the chair next to Gabe, 'I'll have a tea. Black, one sugar.'
The two men look at one another and for a moment they seem unsure; I am willing to bet that they have not been spoken to like this for months, perhaps years. But the first exchanges of any encounter can prove decisive. I have given them an order, wrong-footed them in their own backyard, silenced them for a few seconds. Small victories.
'Fuck off,' says the fat detective, Doolan, at last. 'Think I look like, a fucking waitress?'
I look him up and down, appraising, take my time. 'No, Doolan. No, you don't. Now, shall we get the tapes running and make this official?'
Doolan pushes himself off the wall, walks past me to the other side of the table, passing me so closely that I can feel the air move, my shirt tugged. He sits down opposite me. He has short fair hair which is beaded with perspiration, and although he is fat, he gives the impression that he was once powerful, athletic. Akram stays behind us; I can feel his mocking presence as a tingle around my collar.
Doolan presses a button on the tape machine on the table. Again he yawns.
'Interview commencing ...' he looks at his watch, 'thirteen twenty-seven.'
Before Gabe left the army, losing a leg to an IED disguised as a lump of camel shit on a tour of Afghanistan, he had been a decorated captain in the Cavalry who had been adored by the men who served under him. Since he left, his life has been bereft of the purpose the army gave him and he has drifted, flirted with depression, violence and, occasionally, alcohol abuse. He is a decent, kind and honourable man who early in life found something he loved and was good at. Now, robbed of that, he struggles to find a reason to leave his bed in the morning.
I dispute that Gabe was drunk when Doolan puts it to him. But it was two o'clock in the morning, Gabe was on a night out with former colleagues, making his way home on his own; it is unlikely that he was sober.
'Which is when you encountered Rafiq Jahani.'
'And you know this how?' I say.
'I know this, Mr Connell, because the CCTV footage of the incident tells me. It was his face on it, his fists. You can take that to a jury and put your house on it.' He pauses. 'I'll grant him this. Your client knows how to fight.'
Another thing the army gave Gabe: the ability to physically outmatch almost anybody he comes across, fighting off one leg or not.
Doolan describes the footage: two men meeting in a street, an altercation, one coming off better. No big deal. Nothing exceptional.
'Remind me,' I say. 'What exactly are you charging my client with?'
'Attempted murder,' says Akram from behind me. He draws the second word out as if it has too many vowels. I do not turn around to look at him; know that he would love me to, love to stare me down with those sleepy, smiling eyes.
'Please,' I say. 'We're talking about a drunken brawl. Some little chancer comes across my client, decides to try his luck. Juries go for war veterans. Doesn't sound like you've got anything.'
Doolan makes a show of taking out a notepad, takes his time finding the right page. He is not yet forty and I wonder about his diet. Lager must play an important role.
Excerpted from "Promises of Blood"
Copyright © 2016 David Thorne.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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