Lucy Durmast waits patiently in front of the judge at her own murder trial, refusing to utter a single word. Kenneth Carline, an employee of her father’s, was found poisoned to death after eating a meal that Lucy herself had prepared.
Kenneth was set to marry another, and Lucy, it seems, was jealous. But what should have been an open-and-shut case of envy-driven murder becomes complicated when primary detective Trevor Porritt suffers permanent brain damage. C. D. Sloan inherits the file—and immediately begins poking holes in what looked like an airtight case. Why has the primary suspect gone mute? What was the victim doing with antinuclear pamphlets in his car? Was Detective Porritt’s run-in with the burglar an unhappy coincidence? And what part does the king of the African nation of Dlasa, a client of Lucy’s father, play in all this?
When someone connected to the case dies and the son of the king of Dlasa goes missing, panic begins to spread. Can Inspector Sloan and his hapless assistant, Constable Crosby, untangle this knotted web?
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A Dead Liberty
A C. D. Sloan Mystery
By Catherine Aird
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Catherine Aird
All rights reserved.
Guttae Pro Oculis—Eye drops
"Come along now," said the Chairman of the Bench briskly. "This isn't getting us anywhere, you know."
The girl standing before him made no reply whatsoever.
"You heard what the Clerk said," went on Henry Simmonds, not unkindly. He knew that a first appearance in the dock of a Magistrates' Court was a daunting business for anyone, and this girl was quite young. And, as far as he could judge after casting his practised eye over the courtroom for obvious friends and relatives, she was also quite alone.
"I'll ask the Clerk to repeat the charge," said Mr. Simmonds when the girl made no reply, "in case you didn't hear it properly."
The Clerk to the Berebury Magistrates' Court heroically refrained from raising his voice as he repeated himself for the third time. In a manner that befitted his long years on the administrative side of the law, he also kept any unnecessary inflexion out of his tone. The words themselves were in any case quite awe-inspiring enough as it was.
He said again "Lucy Mirabel Durmast, you are charged that on or about the thirteenth of January last you did feloniously cause the death of Kenneth Malcolm Carline against the Peace of Our Sovereign Lady the Queen, her Crown and Dignity ..."
There was a full-size Royal Coat of Arms of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II affixed to the wall of the court at a level above and behind the Chairman's head. If the girl in the dock thought it odd that the act of murder should still be seen—even in this conspicuously egalitarian day and age—as a breach of the Queen's Peace, she did not say so. She raised her head and gravely regarded the Clerk of the Court with bright grey-green eyes, but she did not utter a single word.
The Chairman of the Bench shuffled his papers and took the opportunity while the charge was being read again of having a good look at the person standing before him. She looked about twenty years old, but she could have been more. As his wife constantly reminded him, he was apt to underestimate women's ages. Although Mrs. Simmonds gracefully conceded this to be a good fault in a husband, it wasn't a help on the Bench. If she were under eighteen, he mused to himself, she was doli capax, which as the Clerk was sure to remind him at the earliest opportunity, meant she was capable of committing a crime but not always liable to be punished for so doing in the same way as someone of eighteen and older.
Time was when a man could tell a girl's age from her clothes but not any more. This girl—actually she hadn't even admitted to being Lucy Mirabel Durmast either yet, but Henry Simmonds had no reason to suppose she wasn't—was dressed rather more carefully than most of those who appeared before him but not in a way that told him very much about her. She had on a plain velvet jacket in a shade of mid-brown that went very well with her shoulder-length hair, which was of a dark shade of auburn. Beneath the velvet jacket she was wearing a pale, lemon-coloured blouse. Below them both Henry Simmonds was fairly confident that she would be wearing a patterned pleated skirt but the height of the dock prevented him from seeing this for himself.
Over his long years as a lay magistrate Henry Simmonds had schooled himself not to associate sartorial appearance of any sort with either guilt or innocence—but that did not mean he didn't notice clothes. In his day all manner of styles and degrees of fashion had come before him. He had, for instance, been aware rather more quickly than most when the ethnic look had been overtaken by its successor—but he had learned long ago not to be too influenced by them. Guilt, he knew, did not necessarily go with unkempt clothes or a dirty appearance—or indeed with dirt itself—although he was well aware that without exception all the solicitors in Berebury advised their clients that a neat and tidy look went down well with the magistrates.
And short hair.
Actually Henry Simmonds was always a little wary of a short back-and-sides hair cut that had a freshly barbered look about it, but he never said so—not even to his fellow magistrates. And he was noticeably less affected by long, straggling locks and a beard on a young man than the rest of the Bench with whom he sat. They were apt to bracket having long hair with the charge and to think of it as another and separate offence.
The girl in the dock had lovely hair. It fell down on her shoulders with an entirely natural grace.
Even when the members of the Bench were in the privacy of their retiring room discussing sentences and the other magistrates muttered something about "and get his hair cut" as if it were either an additional punishment or a remedy for ill-doing, Henry Simmonds always resisted the temptation to join in. This was entirely due to the influence of his great-aunts. He was old enough to remember their finding a new young medical assistant to their old family doctor unacceptable because he was clean-shaven—but then, they had been brought up in the era of the grand beard that had only gradually given way to the mutton chop and the sideburn.
"Do you wish to say anything?" asked the Clerk to the the Magistrates.
Lucy Durmast turned her head attentively in his direction but made no reply.
Henry Simmonds was still thinking about her clothes.
It was quite difficult, he conceded silently to himself, for anyone to know the correct garment to wear for an appearance in Court but this girl had clearly applied her mind to the problem. There was nothing in the least bit way out in what she had on, but nothing apologetic either. She had seen to it that someone had brought in suitable garments for her to wear and she was as well groomed as prison facilities allowed.
"Have you anything to say?" The Clerk let a note of peremptoriness creep into his voice. "Do you wish to bring witnesses?"
The peremptory note did not affect Lucy Durmast's resolution—if that was what it was—not to speak, and she did not answer him.
There was that though about the way in which she held her head high and yet courteously inclined that made Henry Simmonds reflect that in an earlier day and age Lucy Durmast might have dressed for a different sort of Court appearance. Presentation there in that other Court—a vague memory of old sepia-coloured photographs of ostrich feathers floated through his mind—meant that you were being brought to the Sovereign's attention in a different way.
And yet, in a curious fashion, both Courts were the Sovereign's houses—that was what the very word "Court" meant. The Court was the place where the King or Queen was. The fact that he, Henry Simmonds of Almstone, Justice of the Peace, was there today in the Court at Berebury as the Queen's surrogate descended directly from the fact that Her Majesty couldn't be in every Court up and down the land at the same time—while Justice demanded that she should be. In essence Henry Simmonds of Almstone held the Queen's Commission to act on her behalf.
"Do you wish to say anything?" said the Clerk again.
Answer came there none.
There was not even, noted Henry Simmonds, the faintest shake or nod of that fine head of hair that could possibly be construed as a response to the most dreadful charge in the book. The girl held herself quite still, almost as if she were afraid that any movement at all might be taken for what it was not.
And erect, too.
There was nothing cringing about her posture. No one could have implied guilt from anything about the way in which she stood.
The Clerk fell back on a more ancient formula still. "Lucy Mirabel Durmast, how say you?"
Lucy Mirabel Durmast said nothing at all.
Henry Simmonds wondered if anyone had ever told Lucy Durmast how beautiful her hair was. He glanced down at the list of cases on the bench in front of him to remind himself of a name: Kenneth Malcolm Carline. Had Kenneth Carline ever said anything about Lucy Durmast's hair, he wondered?
Before he was murdered, that is.
If he had been murdered, of course.
The Clerk put down his paper and looked straight at the girl in the dock.
She returned his gaze thoughtfully but said nothing.
There was a stage of response to a situation, Henry Simmonds reminded himself, that was known as "a bit late back." It was meant to demonstrate that due consideration had been given to the subject under discussion. As the moments of silence ticked by, it was borne in upon him that this was an eventuality that did not apply in this case. He realised that Lucy Durmast was not simply playing for time. She was clearly not going to speak at all.
Henry Simmonds felt a stirring at his side and was reminded by it that the very word Bench was a noun of multitude. He was not sitting alone today although he might have been. He was flanked by two fellow magistrates, both of whom were no doubt thankful that the honour of the Chair was resting on his manly shoulders rather than theirs.
Actually not all their shoulders were manly. Mrs. Mabel Sperry presented the outward picture of the archetypal wife and mother in spite of having a sentencing policy on the Judge Jeffery's side of severe. The third member of the Bench today was young and politically ambitious. He had still to blunt his armour on the realities of the Magistrates' Court. Terry Watkins, appointed by the Lord Chancellor's Office to keep a social balance in Middle England, saw himself as representing Common Man and usually spoke accordingly. So far he had been unusually silent, which meant that he felt there was no underdog to be spoken up for. Henry Simmonds concurred with this unexpressed view. Young and alone as she was, Lucy Durmast did not give the impression of belonging to an oppressed minority.
It must then have been Mrs. Sperry who had made a movement. She was doubtless itching to remind him that no reply to a charge constituted a technical plea of Not Guilty. But he was in no hurry to proceed. Henry Simmonds was a humane man, more than competent and well aware what was required of him by the peculiar triumvirate made up of the Lord Chancellor's Office, the great British Public and—oddly enough—those arraigned before him for misdemeanours arising out of various degrees of deviance from the Common Law.
There was a Fourth Estate, too, only it was never mentioned.
Henry Simmonds hadn't realised this until he had been on the Bench a little while. He wouldn't have wanted to admit it for worlds, but he was aware that the expectations of the police force came into the matter too. It had been some time before he had appreciated that improperly light sentences almost always resulted in the speedy reappearance of the offender before the Bench on another charge.
In the ordinary way he picked his way through the minefield of everybody's conception of justice with a sure touch, but today was rather different. Henry Simmonds had his normal share of human curiosity too. He was more than a little intrigued by the girl before him as well as by her silence.
For one thing she patently didn't fit the usual run of petty offenders who came the way of the Berebury Bench and he couldn't remember when he had last seen anyone facing a charge of murder who was young and pretty and female. Lucy Durmast certainly didn't fit the usual run of homicidal criminals whom he had seen either. Most murderers, his police friends were wont to say with a touch of cynicism, are male and—as a rule—widowers by the time they appeared in Court.
"Have you heard the indictment?" he asked the girl himself. If she were deaf, the newspapers would enjoy themselves at his expense on Friday.
She turned her head from the Magistrates' Clerk towards him as he spoke, so she had heard it all right, but she still did not speak. At least she was facing him, he thought philosophically. There were those who demonstrated that they did not recognise the jurisdiction of the Court by turning their backs on those sitting in judgement.
"And do you understand it?" asked Henry Simmonds mildly.
There had been a memorable motoring case in his Court once when an interpreter had had to be sent for on behalf of a Bulgarian driver whose English had been limited to "please" and "thank you." Vitally important as Henry Simmonds's nanny had always insisted these two phrases were, they hadn't got the man very far in defending a charge of driving a motor vehicle without due care and attention.
Unfortunately the interpreter's Bulgarian had been better than his knowledge of the law and he had enthusiastically entered the lists in defence of the erring motorist. Whoever had said that only a Bishop gained by translation was right. Without the detached impartiality of the true translator, the case had fallen ...
"Charge." Henry Simmonds's train of thought was interrupted by a whisper from the Clerk to the Magistrates. "Not indictment."
"What was that?" he asked, sotto voce.
"Charge, Mr. Simmonds," insisted the Clerk. "Not indictment. She's here on a charge."
He nodded and turned courteously to the prisoner. "The Clerk has quite properly reminded me that you come before this Court on a charge and not on an indictment."
The Bench was entitled to believe that Lucy Durmast had been advised on the difference between the two and knew what an indictment was. If she did know, thought Henry Simmonds, then she was a better man than he was. He certainly hadn't grasped the detail at his own first appearance on the Bench. All he'd had at the back of his mind then had been something called "a True Bill," which he had read about somewhere, but that, he had been told at the time, was an archaism that had been left behind in some reform or other.
"An indictment," he explained now as there was no visible sign of anyone acting for the Defense, "is a written accusation made on behalf of the Sovereign ..."
There was the Queen cropping up again.
This time Lucy Durmast's gaze did tilt fractionally upwards to take in the Royal Coat of Arms above his head. Henry Simmonds wondered if she knew what the motto on the scroll beneath the crest meant—Honi Soit qui mal y pense. He always thought it very apposite for a Court of Law—Evil unto him who evil thinks. And not written in Latin either but in Norman French. Perhaps it had come over with William the Conqueror, or was it merely a legacy of those days when England's territory rather than her tourists had extended into France?
It was a visit to the Abbey at Fontevrault that had cemented that period of history in Henry Simmonds's mind. It hadn't been so much the royal tombs themselves lying there in the transept—Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Lionheart and Isabelle of Angoulême—as the fact that the French Government wouldn't even now let the Foreign Office arrange for them to come back to lie at Windsor that had underscored the past to him.
"An indictment ..." He wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that that word had come over with William the Conqueror too. That might explain why it wasn't pronounced as it was spelt.
"An indictment," he persisted, "sets out a serious crime ..." He paused and decided that to explain that murder was a serious crime would be mere pedantry.
And yet, oddly enough, the only time when he had fallen into argument with Terry Watkins had been over the age-old allegation that the Bench always felt more strongly about the defence of property than it did about attacks on the person. Goodness knew who would have been the first malcontent to say that—a disgruntled peasant in the Middle Ages probably. It was certainly old hat by Wat Tyler's day.
The young radical Watkins had once quoted Proudhon's dictum "Property is theft" to the others in the Magistrates' Retiring Room. This hadn't gone down very well with Mrs. Mabel Sperry. To begin with, she hadn't understood what Terry Watkins had been talking about, and when it did eventually dawn on her she hadn't liked what he had said.
Henry Simmonds would have liked at that point to have brought in a mention of Victor Hugo's piece from Les Misérables about the Bishop's candlesticks—countering one Frenchman with another rather neatly, he thought—but Terry Watkins and Mrs. Sperry had fallen into such bitter argument that he had had practically to bind the pair of them over to keep the peace under one of the oldest statutes in the book.
In their own recognizances, too.
He cleared his throat, looked at Lucy Durmast and finished his piece from the chair "... for which the accused may be tried by jury."
Lucy Durmast still did not speak but she did turn her head to look at the jury box.
Excerpted from A Dead Liberty by Catherine Aird. Copyright © 1987 Catherine Aird. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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