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Authors: J. M. Gregson

Stranglehold

BOOK: Stranglehold
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STRANGLEHOLD

J. M. Gregson

CHIVERS

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available

This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.

Published by arrangement with the Author

Epub ISBN 9781471310195

Copyright © J. M. Gregson 1993

The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

All rights reserved

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental

Jacket illustration © iStockphoto.com

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

CHAPTER 1

The light shone into the man's face, white and unrelenting. The room was hot and airless. On its stark and functional furniture, there was no room for dust to gather. But there was a faint odour of stale sweat within these bleak and narrow walls.

It was almost two in the morning, but in the airless and windowless interview room it might have been any time. Only the fatigue of the three men who fought each other with words within this place gave any clue that this might be an hour when the remainder of the world was at rest.

Lambert watched the cassette which turned almost silently beside him, recording each syllable of this so far pointless performance. He hoped the tension was building within the figure opposite him, but he suspected the man had been through these sessions too often to panic now. He resisted the feeling of hopelessness within himself; it troubled him more and more these days, whenever he approached the point of exhaustion.

‘You might as well admit it, Tommy. You were in Union Street at the time. You were seen. We can document it, if we have to. You –'

‘I was at home.' Tommy Clinton repeated the statement for the seventh time that night, as though he were making the response in some bizarre secular litany.

‘And who says so?'

‘I've told you. My mother. But she was asleep at the time you're talking about. Like a decent old lady should be.'

Lambert smiled sourly. An old lady, nodding a little with Parkinson's disease, who had lied before for her son, who would bring herself to believe her own lies by the time they had prepared a case. Whom he could never put in court for cross-examination, in any case. They both knew the score.

He drove himself on to what he knew he must do. He was helped by the irritation he felt that this man should best him. Tommy Clinton was a pathetic figure. His frayed shirt was grubby about the neck: it had been worn at least two days too long. His grey hair was greasy, untidy now from the four hours he had been at the station. His grey eyes were carefully blank; that came from his experience of petty crime, of hours of questioning like this.

He was only here because of his grubby past, and that held no more than minor, even comic crimes, the kind even the police laughed at when he was gone. Tommy was no threat. But here he was, outsmarting the CID.

‘You're a flasher, Tommy. Tried and convicted.'

‘I've given up all that, Mr Lambert. I've told you.'

He had, several times. No doubt he would go on doing so. Unless they could frighten him.

‘Flashers go on to bigger things, sometimes. You know that, Tommy, and so do we.' It wasn't true, it was a rarity. But not unknown. And Tommy didn't know the statistics: for the first time, he looked a little scared.

‘I haven't done nothing. I told you.' He kept his hands on the table between them, with the dirty fingernails turned towards the two men opposite him. But for the first time in twenty minutes, the hands became mobile. The fingers did not tremble, but they began to massage each other a little. All three men watched them in silence, like deaf men trying to interpret a new sign language.

Lambert saw the first stirring of apprehension and went for it, like a fencer seeing an opening in his opponent's defence. No, nothing so subtle, he thought wryly: like a boxer seeing the chance to put in a bludgeoning blow. Not a knockout, merely something that might weaken the adversary a little, score him an extra point with the non-existent judges.

‘This is big, you see, Tommy. Big and nasty. The girl was killed. And before she was killed, she was sexually assaulted. That's what it will say in the papers. You and I know what that means. Clothes torn off; fist rammed in her mouth; face bashed until it bled; legs forced apart; tights –'

‘It's not my sort of crime, Mr Lambert.' Clinton was desperate to stop the flow of detail, and Lambert scarcely less desperate to be interrupted. Both of them breathed hard as they stared at each other. ‘I've never been one for violence. I – I've had my little weaknesses with women, God knows, but I've never been charged with hitting them.'

It was probably true, but Lambert was too weary to care. He smelt the fear on the man, and he went for it. ‘And when the man had finished with her, he killed her. Brutally, with his bare hands. Just to stop her talking. Or to give himself more pleasure. You tell us which, Tommy.'

The police usually kept the facts from men like Clinton, hoping to make them uneasy by keeping them in ignorance of what the investigation was about, collecting bits of information which men like him often revealed when they jumped to false conclusions.

This sudden revelation when he least expected it threw Clinton off balance. ‘You're not setting me up for the Julie Salmon killing?' His voice was almost a shout, bouncing off the walls at them, shocking in its alarm after his earlier calm. They smelt his stale breath, gusting at them now across the table as he struggled to control it.

‘You're in the frame, Clinton. And you're not helping yourself.' Lambert sat back, recoiling a little from that awful stench, estimating the state of his man from a few inches further away. The little man knew the name of the victim; Lambert cudgelled his tired brain to decide whether there could be any significance in that. ‘We have a witness who saw you that night, not far from where the body was found. And at about the right time. There you are: I've levelled with you now. It's about time you did the same with us.'

The man was still frightened. The fingers twined and untwined rapidly, as if with a life of their own. Clinton watched them as though they were someone else's, making no attempt to stop them moving. He was scared, but after the first shock, his fear took on the unthinking sullenness of a panic-ridden child. ‘I didn't do it. I wouldn't do anything like that. You can't pin this on me.'

His voice carried no conviction. In his world, the creed was that the pigs could pin most things on you if they had a mind to.

Lambert, recognizing the doors being closed behind that blank, sullen face, eased his chair back a fraction. The man beside him knew the way he worked so well that no glance was needed between them to indicate what was required. Instead, there was the briefest of pauses. Then Bert Hook, who had not spoken for half an hour, took up the questioning, his voice unexpectedly restrained, even friendly, in that room which was designed to be unfriendly to men like Clinton.

‘You see, Tommy, we'd like to help you. To help you to help yourself.' Hook felt unhurriedly through his pockets, watching the face opposite him, looking for the first hint of cooperation. The man had not asked for a lawyer, but that did not mean he felt he had nothing to fear. The petty fringe of the underworld in which men like Clinton lived did not deal with lawyers. Only, later on, with legal aid.

Hook found the packet and shoved it on to his edge of the table. ‘Want a fag, Tommy?'

Clinton's hands moved a couple of inches towards the cigarettes, then drew back. ‘No. Keep your snout.' His lips had betrayed him into the prison word before he could control them.

But it was his hands which had given away his need for nicotine, as they had earlier given away his apprehension. Hook pushed the packet across the small square table between them, then struck a match as Clinton fumbled out a cigarette from it. The smoke smelt strong in the tiny, overheated room, the more so as both the policemen were reformed smokers themselves. Both of them found themselves with their eyes on the packet; Clinton's had been only the second tube extracted from it. It was at the ends of days like this that they missed the relief of tobacco most.

Hook forced himself to something near affability as he said, ‘Where were you, then, Tommy, on that night?'

Clinton, grateful for the cigarette, looked up at the man opposite him, seeing the sweat under the arms of his white shirt and the tiredness on the sergeant's face, feeling a bond between them from these signs of physical weakness as much as from the tobacco he had been given. But he looked down, resisting false friendship from men who must be his enemies by their calling. He shook his head stubbornly, then drew again upon the cigarette.

‘You see, Tommy, we know you were there. When you deny it, naturally we have to think bad things about you.' Hook would not admit that their ‘witness' was a prostitute who thought she had glimpsed him through the darkness: scarcely the most reliable of sightings. He saw Clinton's little start of fear at his use of ‘bad things', which the man obviously considered a euphemism.

‘My mum'll tell you. I was at home.'

‘I don't think we'll even bother to ask her, Tommy. Old ladies like her should be left with clear consciences, I always feel.'

Clinton said sullenly, trying to disguise his fear, ‘I was nowhere near that murder. I didn't see anything. I can't help you nail the man who did it.'

It was the first perceptible switch of ground, and all of them were expert enough in these exchanges to detect it. Hook, playing this nervous fish which had taken his fly, did not hurry. ‘You see, Tommy, if we can just eliminate you as a suspect, we can concentrate on others. And because you were in the area that night, you will probably have seen some little thing which will be of interest to us, even though it doesn't seem significant to you.'

On the surface at least, Clinton was being treated almost as an equal; he liked the big words, the careful explanation. He was not used to being treated by many men with anything more than a routine contempt, and he did not find it easy to deal with this. He rose a little in his chair, as a cat rises a little under the knuckles which gently stroke its head. ‘If I was in that area, it was much earlier in the evening.'

The brains of the men opposite him, trained over many years to dissect such vagaries, wondered automatically how much information the Press Officer had dispensed to the press about the time of the murder.

‘All right, Tommy. Let's accept for the moment that you were tucked up in bed at home like a good boy when poor Julie Salmon was killed. Where were you earlier that night?'

Clinton looked hard at the hands which would not be stilled, as though watching carefully for their reaction to what he was going to say. ‘I was in the
Grapes.
Having a couple of drinks.'

‘And who was with you there, Tommy?'

‘I – I don't remember. It's a few days ago now and –'

‘Pity, that, Tommy. Puts you right back in the frame, that does. Especially now you've told us you were in the area.'

‘Look, Sarge, the blokes I was with, they –'

‘Rape and murder, Tommy. Crimes don't come any bigger. Or any worse. Are you telling me your mates –'

‘All right. All right!' The hands which had been so mobile rose a little into the air, then fell back hopelessly on to the table and were still at last. ‘I'll tell you all about what I did that night.'

‘And all the times, Tommy.' They were the first words Lambert had spoken in over ten minutes. Clinton looked at him for a moment in shock; he had almost forgotten he was there.

It was at that moment that there was a sharp rap at the door which surprised them all. Detective-Inspector Rushton's face, reluctant but urgent, appeared as the door opened a few inches and said, ‘Sir, I'm sorry to interrupt, but something's come in.'

Lambert thrust down his irritation, choked back the expletive that had sprung to his weary lips. He rose without a word and followed the younger man from the room, shutting the door firmly behind him. Sergeant Hook said to the microphone, ‘Superintendent Lambert had to leave the room at this point. The interview was suspended,' and pressed the stop button on the recorder.

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