Common murder, p.1
Common Murder, p.1Val McDermid
For my father
“This is murder,” Lindsay Gordon complained, leaning back in her chair and putting her feet up on the desk. “I can’t bear it when there’s nothing doing. Look at us. Eight p.m. on the dynamic newsdesk of a national daily. The night news editor’s phoning his daughter in Detroit. His deputy’s straining his few remaining brain cells with the crossword. One reporter has escaped to the pub like a sensible soul. Another is using the office computer to write the Great English Novel . . .”
“And the third is whingeing on as usual,” joked the hopeful novelist, looking up from the screen. “Don’t knock it, Lindsay, it’s better than working.”
“Huh,” she grunted, reaching for the phone. “I sometimes wonder. I’m going to do a round of calls, see if there’s anything going on in the big bad world outside.”
Her colleague grinned. “What’s the problem? Run out of friends to phone?”
Lindsay pulled a face. “Something like that,” she replied. As she opened her contacts book at the page with the list of police, fire, and ambulance numbers she thought of the change in her attitude to unfettered access to the office phone since she’d moved from her base in Glasgow to live with her lover Cordelia in London. She had appreciated quiet night shifts in those days for the chance they gave her to spend half the night chattering about everything and nothing with Cordelia. These days, however, it seemed that what they had to say to each other could easily be accommodated in the hours between work and sleep. Indeed, Lindsay was beginning to find it easier to open her heart to friends who weren’t Cordelia. She shook herself mentally and started on her list of calls.
On the newsdesk, Cliff Gilbert the night news editor finished his phone conversation and started checking the computerized newsdesk for any fresh stories. After a few minutes, he called. “Lindsay, you clear?”
“Just doing the calls, Cliff,” she answered.
“Never mind that. There’s a bloody good tip just come in from one of the local paper lads in Fordham. Seems there’s been some aggro at the women’s peace camp at Brownlow Common. I’ve transferred the copy into your personal desk. Check it out, will you?” he asked.
Lindsay sat up and summoned the few paragraphs on to her screen. The story seemed straightforward enough. A local resident claimed he’d been assaulted by one of the women from the peace camp. He’d had his nose broken in the incident, and the woman was in custody. Lindsay was instantly skeptical. She found it hard to believe that one of a group pledged to campaign for peace would physically attack an opponent of the anti-nuclear protest. But she was enough of a professional to concede that her initial reaction was the sort of knee-jerk she loved to condemn when it came from the other side.
The repercussions unfolding outside Fordham police station made the story interesting from the point of view of the Daily Clarion newsdesk. The assaulted man, a local solicitor called Rupert Crabtree, was the leader of Ratepayers Against Brownlow’s Destruction, a pressure group dedicated to the removal of the peace women from the common. His accusation had provoked a spontaneous demonstration from the women, who were apparently besieging the police station. That in its turn had provoked a counter-demonstration from RABD members outraged at the alleged attack. There was a major confrontation in the making, it appeared.
Lindsay started making phone calls, but soon hit a brick wall. The police station at Fordham were referring all calls to county headquarters. Headquarters were hiding behind the old excuse:
“We can make no statement yet. Reports are still coming in.” It was not an unusual frustration. She walked over to Cliff’s desk and explained the problem. “It might be worth taking a run down there to see what the score is,” she suggested. “I can be there in an hour at this time of night, and if it is shaping up into a nasty, we should have someone on the spot. I don’t know how far we can rely on the lad that filed the original copy. I’ve got some good contacts at the peace camp. We could get a cracking exclusive out of it. What do you think?”
Cliff shrugged. “I don’t know. It doesn’t grab me.”
Lindsay sighed. “On the basis of what we’ve got so far, we could be looking at a major civil disturbance. I’d hate the opposition to beat us to the draw when we’ve got a head start with my contacts.”
“Give your contacts a bell, then.”
“There are no phones at the camp, Cliff. British Telecom have shown an incomprehensible reluctance to install them in tents. And besides, they’ll probably all be down the copshop protesting. I might as well go. There’s sod all else doing.”
He grinned. “Okay, Lindsay, go and take a look. Give me a check call when you get there. I’ll see if we can get any more information over the phone. Remember your deadlines—there’s no point in getting a good exclusive if we can’t get it in the paper.”
“What about a pic man?”
“Let me know if you need one when you get there. I seem to remember there’s a local snapper we’ve used before.”
Five minutes later, Lindsay was weaving through the London traffic in her elderly MG roadster. She drove on automatic pilot while she dredged all she knew about the peace camp to the surface of her mind.
She’d first been to the camp about nine months before. She and Cordelia had made the twenty-mile detour to Brownlow Common one sunny May Sunday after a long lunch with friends in Oxford. Lindsay had read about the camp in one of the Sunday papers, and had been intrigued enough by the report to want to see it for herself. Cordelia, who shared Lindsay’s commitment to opposing the nuclear threat, had been easily persuaded to come along on that initial visit, though she was never to share Lindsay’s conviction that the camp was an effective form of protest. For Cordelia, the channels of dissent that came easiest were the traditional ones of letters to the Guardian and MPs. She had never felt comfortable with the ethos of the camp. Cordelia always felt that she was somehow being judged and found wanting by the women who had made that overwhelming commitment to the cause of peace. So she seldom accompanied Lindsay on later visits, preferring to confine her support to handing cash over to Lindsay to purchase whatever necessities the camp was short of, from lentils to toilet chemicals. But for that first visit, she suspended her instinctive distrust and tried to keep her mind open.
The peace camp had started spontaneously just over a year before. A group of women had marched from the West Country to the American airbase at Brownlow Common to protest at the siting of US cruise missiles there. They had been so fired by anger and enthusiasm at the end of their three-week march that they decided to set up a peace camp as a permanent protest against the nuclear colonization of their green unpleasant land.
Thinking back to that early summer afternoon, Lindsay found it hard to remember what she’d expected. What she had found was enough to shatter her expectations beyond recall. They had turned off the main road on to a leafy country lane. After about a mile and a half, the trees on one side of the road suddenly stopped. There was an open clearing the size of a couple of football pitches, bisected by a tarmac track tha
In the distance, the long low humps of the missile silos broke the skyline. Three hundred yards inside the perimeter fence were buildings identifiable as servicemen’s quarters—square, concrete blocks with identical curtains. From beyond the wire, they looked like a remand center, Lindsay had thought. They provided a stark contrast to the other human habitation visible from the car. Most of the clearing outside the forbidding fence had been annexed by the peace women. All over it were clusters of tents—green, gray, orange, blue, brown. The women were sitting out in the warm sunshine, talking, drinking, cooking, eating, singing. The bright colors of their clothes mingled and formed a kaleidoscope of constantly changing patterns. Several young children were playing a hysterical game of tig round one group of tents.
Lindsay and Cordelia had been made welcome, although some of the more radical women were clearly suspicious of Lindsay’s occupation and Cordelia’s reputation as a writer who embodied the establishment’s vision of an acceptable feminist. But after that first visit Lindsay had maintained contact with the camp. It seemed to provide her with a focus for her flagging political energies, and besides, she enjoyed the company of the peace women. One in particular, Jane Thomas, a doctor who had given up a promising career as a surgical registrar to live at the camp, had become a close and supportive friend.
Lindsay had come to look forward to the days she spent at Brownlow Common. The move to London that had seemed to promise so much had proved to be curiously unsatisfying. She had been shocked to discover how badly she fitted in with Cordelia’s circle of friends. It was an upsetting discovery for someone whose professional success often depended on that mercurial quality she possessed which enabled her to insinuate herself virtually anywhere. Cordelia, for her part, clearly felt uncomfortable with journalists who weren’t part of the media arts circus. And Cordelia was no chameleon. She liked to be with people who made her feel at home in the persona she had adopted. Now she was wrapped up in a new novel, and seemed happier to discuss its progress with her friends and her agent than with Lindsay, who felt increasingly shut out as Cordelia became more absorbed in her writing. It had made Lindsay feel uncomfortable about bringing her own work problems home, for Cordelia’s mind always seemed to be elsewhere. Much as she loved and needed Cordelia, Lindsay had begun to sense that her initial feeling that she had found a soulmate with whom she occasionally disagreed was turning into a struggle to find enough in common to fill the spaces between the lovemaking that still brought them together in a frighteningly intense unity. Increasingly, they had pursued their separate interests. Brownlow Common had become one of Lindsay’s favorite boltholes.
But the camp had changed dramatically since those heady summer days. Harassment had sprung up from all sides. Some local residents had formed Ratepayers Against Brownlow’s Destruction in an attempt to get rid of the women who created in the camp what the locals saw as an eyesore, health hazard, and public nuisance. The yobs from nearby Fordham had taken to terrorizing the camp in late-night firebomb attacks. The police were increasingly hostile and heavy-handed in dealing with demonstrations. What media coverage there was had become savage, stereotyped, and unsympathetic. And the local council had joined forces with the Ministry of Defence to fight the women’s presence through the civil courts. The constant war of attrition coupled with the grim winter weather had changed the camp both physically and spiritually. Where there had been green grass, there was now a greasy, pot-holed morass of reddish-brown clay. The tents had vanished, to be replaced with benders—polythene sheeting stretched over branches and twine to make low-level tepees. They were ugly but they were also cheap, harder to burn, and easier to reconstruct. Even the rainbow colors the women wore were muted now that the February cold had forced them to wrap up in drab winter plumage. But more serious, in Lindsay’s eyes, was the change in atmosphere. The air of loving peace and warmth, that last hangover from the sixties, had been heavily overlaid with the pervading sense of something harder. No one was in any doubt that this was no game.
It was typically ironic, she thought, that it needed crime to persuade the Clarion that the camp was worth some coverage. She had made several suggestions to her news editor about a feature on the women at the peace camp, but he had treated the idea with derision. Lindsay had finally conceded with ill grace because her transfer to the job in London was a relatively recent achievement she couldn’t afford to jeopardize. The job hadn’t quite turned out the way she’d expected either. From being a highly rated writer who got her fair share of the best assignments, she had gone to being just another fish in the pool of reporters. But she remembered too well the years of hard-working, nail-biting freelancing before she’d finally recovered the security of a wage packet, and she wasn’t ready to go back to that life yet.
Jane Thomas, however, encouraged her to use her talents in support of the camp. As a result, Lindsay had rung round her magazine contacts from her freelance days and sold several features abroad to salve her conscience. Thanks to her, the camp had had extensive magazine coverage in France, Italy, and Germany, and had even featured in a color spread in an American news magazine. But somewhere deep inside, she knew that wasn’t enough. She felt guilty about the way she had changed since she’d decided to commit herself to her relationship with Cordelia. She knew she’d been seduced as much by Cordelia’s comfortable lifestyle as by her lover’s charm. That had made it hard to sustain the political commitment that had once been so important to her. “Your bottle’s gone, Gordon,” she said aloud as she pulled off the motorway on to the Fordham road. Perhaps the chance for redemption was round the next corner.
As she reached the outskirts of the quiet market town of Fordham, her radiopager bleeped insistently. Sighing, she checked the dashboard clock. Nine fifteen. Forty-five minutes to edition time. She wasted five precious minutes finding a phone box and rang Cliff.
“Where are you?” he said officiously.
“I’m about five minutes away from the police station,” she explained patiently. “I’d have been there by now if you hadn’t bleeped me.”
“Okay, fine. I’ve had the local lad on again. I’ve said you’re en route and I’ve told him to link up with you. His name’s Gavin Hammill, he’s waiting for you in the lounge bar of the Griffon’s Head, in the market place, he says. He’s wearing a Barbour jacket and brown trousers. He says it’s a bit of a stalemate at present; anyway, suss it out and file copy as soon as.”
“I’m on my way,” Lindsay said.
Finding the pub was no problem. Finding Gavin Hammill was not so simple. Every other man in the pub was wearing a Barbour jacket and half of them seemed to be alone. After the second failure, Lindsay decided to buy a drink and try again. Before she could down her Scotch, a gangling youth with mousy brown hair and a skin problem inadequately hidden by a scrubby beard tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Lindsay Gordon? From the Clarion? I’m Gavin Hammill, Fordham Weekly Bugle.”
Far from relieved, Lindsay smiled weakly. “Please to meet you, Gavin. What’s the score?
“Well, both lots are still outside the police station but the police don’t seem to know quite how to play it. I mean, they can’t treat the ratepayers the way they normally treat the peace women, can they? And yet they can’t be seen to be treating them differently. It’s kind of a standoff. Or it was when I left.”
“And when was that?”
“About ten minutes ago.”
“Come on then, let’s go and check it out. I’ve got a deadline to meet in twenty minutes.”
On the steps of the police station, sat about forty women dressed in strangely assorted layers of thick clothing, with muddy boots and peace badges fixed to their jackets, hats, and scarves. The majority of them looked remarkably healthy, in spite of the hardships of their outdoor life. To one side, a group of about twenty-five people stood shouting. There were more men than women, and they all looked as if they ought to be at home watching “Mastermind” instead of causing a civil disturbance outside the police station. Between the two groups were posted about a dozen uniformed policemen who seemed unwilling to do more than keep the groups apart. Lindsay stood and watched for a few minutes. Every so often, one of the RABD group would try to push through the police lines, but not seriously enough to warrant more than the gentlest of police manhandling. These attempts were usually provoked by jibes from one or two of the women. Lindsay recognized Nicky, one of the camp’s proponents of direct action, who called out, “You’re brave enough when the police are in the way, aren’t you? What about being brave when the Yanks drop their bombs on your doorstep?”
“Why aren’t the cops breaking it up?” Lindsay asked Gavin.
“I told you, they don’t seem to know what to do. I think they’re waiting for the superintendent to get here. He was apparently off duty tonight and they’ve been having a bit of bother getting hold of him. I imagine he’ll be able to sort it out.”
Even as he spoke, a tall, uniformed police officer with a face like a Medici portrait emerged from the station. He picked his way between the peace women, who jeered at him. “That him?” Lindsay demanded.
Common Murder by Val McDermid / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes