Read an Excerpt
Calling Down the Storm
Wednesday 28 April 1971
The man was sitting on the ground, his legs drawn up halfway towards his chest, his hands resting on his knees. In his right hand he held a knife, the blade four or five inches long, the brown plastic handle stained to look like wood. The knife was covered in blood.
The woman was lying directly in front of the man, no more than four feet away from where he sat. She lay on her back, her arms stretched out at her sides, her eyes gazing absently up to the sky. A large pool of blood had formed around her, flowing from her neck and midriff and spreading under her legs. She was dying.
It had started to rain, but neither noticed.
DI Johnny Webb and DS Phil Raymond arrived at the scene within five minutes of the call coming in. The killing took place in Dombey Street, a stone's throw from Holborn Police Station in Lamb's Conduit Street, where the officers were just starting a break in the canteen. Leaving their cups of tea untouched, they commandeered PC Williams, a young uniformed constable who was making a start on a bacon and egg sandwich at the next table. The three of them ran at full speed across Lamb's Conduit Street, turning left into Dombey Street less than a minute after leaving the police station.
One look at the man was enough to tell them that they had a serious problem. They stopped abruptly and desperately tried to evaluate the situation. It didn't look promising. They knew that an ambulance had already been dispatched from Great Ormond Street Hospital, which, like the police station, was only a street or two away. Great Ormond Street is a children's hospital, not a specialist emergency unit; but it was a case of any port in a storm – help was on the way, and that was good. But before the ambulance crew had any chance of helping the woman, something had to be done about the man holding the knife. The woman's body was lying just off Dombey Street at the entrance to a narrow courtyard called Harpur Mews. The man was sitting in the entrance itself, with his back to the street, taking up most of its width and blocking access to her.
There was no time to lose. The officers exchanged several urgent hand signals. Webb took the lead. He approached the entrance quietly, and began to feel his way gingerly towards a position in front of the man, making as wide an arc as he could in the limited space around the man's left side. Raymond, treading as lightly as he could, made a direct approach towards the man's back until he was within touching distance. Williams waited like a sprinter in the blocks for Webb to advance sufficiently to allow him a clear path, and as soon as he saw daylight he raced through the gap on the man's left. When he reached the woman, he knelt protectively by her side between her and the man, a last desperate line of defence in case the man attacked her again.
As Webb approached, he noticed that the man was not responding at all to the activity going on around him. He must have known that the officers were there, but he sat perfectly still, his eyes fixed on the ground, his breathing barely noticeable. Webb turned his attention to the knife. His eyes focused on it and stayed there. He was approaching the point of no return now. He would have to put his body within range of a strike. There was no other way to disarm the man. If he chose to use the knife, Webb had no way of defending himself except to raise his arms, offer them up to defensive wounds to deflect more deadly blows, and hope that his colleagues would overpower the man before he could do any worse damage. Even that might not work. He would have to bend down to take the knife, which made him mortally vulnerable to a sudden upward swing of the blade. If the woman's condition had been less serious, he might have waited for back-up, but with things as they were, that was out of the question. There was no choice. He was only a foot away now.
'I'll take that, sir, if you please,' he said, as calmly as he could.
There was no response at all. This was the moment. He was aware that Raymond was at the man's back, ready to pounce. He extended his right hand towards the man's right hand. Their hands touched briefly on the handle of the knife. To his amazement, the man did not resist at all. The officer simply lifted the knife from where it lay, on his palm and under his thumb. The man had almost no grip on the knife; it was a wonder he had not dropped it, and it took almost no effort for Webb to make it secure. He gave an audible sigh of relief, and for some moments he stood in the rain, holding the knife down and away to his right, his eyes shifting between the man and the woman, wondering what had brought them to this.CHAPTER 2
'You don't happen to have any evidence bags with you, I suppose?' Webb asked.
Williams was helping Raymond to lead the man, whose arms were now handcuffed behind his back, to a patrol car which had just screeched to a halt by the entrance to the mews, its blue lights still flashing.
'Sorry, guv,' Williams called over his shoulder. 'Didn't think I'd be needing one up in the canteen.'
Webb smiled. He had been holding the handle of the knife as delicately as he could under his raincoat. With any luck there would still be a print or two left on the handle, and the rain had not entirely removed the blood from the blade; there would be something left for Forensic to look at.
A few feet away from him the ambulance crew was still working feverishly on the woman, huge wads of gauze applied to her wounds in an attempt to stem the tide of blood, an impromptu intravenous drip inserted into an arm, the bag of fluids held high by one of the crew. All in vain: hopeless. Their leader had told him as much when they arrived, with a single shake of the head. It would not be long before they admitted defeat and removed her body to the ambulance.
Very gently, Webb slid his handkerchief from his trouser pocket, wrapped the knife in it, and walked over to the patrol car. The man was now sitting in the back seat, motionless, staring down at the floor. Webb opened the boot, removed a wheel jack from its cloth cover, and converted the cover into a makeshift evidence bag for the knife. He closed the boot and leaned against the side of the car with Raymond and Williams, watching the ambulance crew begin their disengagement.
The street was busy now. Two more patrol cars had arrived, the officers standing by uncertainly. There was nothing obvious for them to do. Scenes of crime officers would soon arrive to take control of the site. But they would not leave until Webb, the senior CID officer present, dismissed them. Next to one of the cars, the ambulance waited, its back doors open. On the other side of Dombey Street, a few people had opened doors and windows to see what was going on. One or two had ventured out into the street. A single officer stood in the middle of the street to make sure they did not encroach on the scene, though no one was showing even the slightest interest in coming any closer. The neighbours seemed calm and incredulous. It was a Wednesday afternoon, not long after lunch: not the time when you would expect something like this. But then again, when would you expect something like this?
'Did he say anything?' Webb asked.
'Not a word, sir.' Raymond replied. 'He didn't resist when we put the cuffs on him, either. He went completely limp. I thought we were going to have to drag him to the car, but he did manage to walk on his own.'
Webb shook his head.
'Well, I hope he has something to say for himself. It looks like he's made a real mess of her. Do we know who he is?' Raymond made a tent of a fold in his raincoat and took two items from his jacket pocket, keeping them dry while allowing Webb a quick look.
'Driving licence and cheque book in the name of Henry Lang, with an address in Alwyne Road, N1. Where's that?' Webb shrugged.
'It's off Canonbury Road, sir,' Williams offered. 'Bit of a posh residential area. You wouldn't expect to find people carrying knives up there.'
'I'm not surprised by anything very much any more,' Webb replied.
'There's a business card in the name of Mercury Mechanics, with an address in King Henry's Walk, N1,' Raymond added.
'Not far from Alwyne Road,' Williams ventured, 'a few minutes' walk at most.'
'He didn't have any car keys with him,' Raymond said.
'Strange for a mechanic, wouldn't you think?'
'Perhaps he liked to walk, or take the bus now and then,' Williams suggested. 'Just a thought, sir,' he added in due course, having received no reply.
'Perhaps someone here knows him,' Webb continued, after a silence. He looked across the street. The neighbours were still looking on, but no one seemed to be in a rush to volunteer information. The houses on both sides of the street were four storeys tall and all had windows overlooking the narrow street. Surely to God, someone must have seen something? He pushed himself up from his leaning position against the car.
'Did she have anything with her?'
'A handbag, sir,' Williams replied. 'It's in the car.'
'All right. This patrol car can take Mr Lang to the nick and get him booked in. We will talk to him when we get back. Tell them to leave her handbag on the desk in my office. Start talking to those people over there and see if anyone saw or heard anything. If they did, make sure you get statements.'
'And when you've done that, knock on the other doors up and down the street, and see if there's anyone who's a bit shy about coming outside, but may have been peering through the lace curtains. If you need more help, call in and tell them I authorised it.'
The ambulance crew had lifted the woman on to a stretcher and removed the IV. They were carrying her slowly the short distance out of Harpur Mews towards the ambulance. Only the pool of blood, which seemed barely diminished despite the rain, remained to suggest that anything untoward had occurred to interrupt a peaceful Wednesday afternoon. Three scenes of crime officers had arrived. Webb knew them; he had worked with them before and they were thorough. If there was anything to find, they would find it. He saw them conferring with one of the uniformed officers. If they were lucky, the rain would have left them something to work with, some trace of evidence to seize and analyse. If not, they would have to gather evidence wherever they could.
Webb allowed his gaze to rest on the houses in front of him. As he watched, the front door of the house immediately across the street from the mews opened, and the figure of a woman appeared slowly and hesitantly. She stood for some time with the door slightly ajar before emerging fully into view. She was slightly built, with dark brown hair, dressed in a long, flowing white cotton skirt and a beige blouse, around her neck a thick silver-coloured necklace, rigid and unadorned, her feet in brown sandals with a slight wedge. Webb's first impression of her age was vague, somewhere between 30 and 40, but difficult to pin down more precisely. He could see little of her face, which was almost covered by the large white handkerchief she was holding up to her eyes. Her distress was obvious. He nudged Raymond, and they made their way across the street to her.
'Are you the police?' she asked quietly.
'Yes, madam. We are from Holborn Police Station. I am Detective Inspector Webb, and this is Detective Sergeant Raymond. And you are ...?'
'Can you help me at all about what happened here?' She nodded and pushed the door open.
'I saw it all,' she replied, 'through the window. You'd better come in.'CHAPTER 3
'Would you like some tea?'
They had closed the front door, leaving the horror of the mews behind them, and made their way through to the kitchen at the rear of the house. It was suddenly more peaceful, and for the first time Webb was able to release some of the tension he had felt building inside him since they had arrived on the scene.
'Yes. Thank you, Mrs Cameron. I'm sure a cup of tea would do us all some good. Just milk for me, please.'
'Two sugars, please,' Raymond said.
She struck a match and lit one of the burners on the gas stove. She filled the kettle and put it on to boil.
'It didn't take you long to get here,' she said, her tone still shocked, distant. 'Everyone says that when you call the police it takes them ages to come, but you were here in no time at all.'
'As I said, we are based at Holborn Police Station, at the top of Lamb's Conduit Street,' Webb replied, 'so we were almost on the doorstep. We were able to dash down here as soon as the call came in. Was it you who called it in?'
'Yes. Was the ambulance in time to save her?'
'No, I'm afraid not.'
She nodded, placed both hands on the kitchen table, and bent low over it, as if reminding herself to breathe.
'That's what I thought,' she said eventually. 'I didn't see her moving at all.'
'Did you go outside?' Raymond asked.
'No. I was too frightened. Shocked, too, I think.'
'Yes, of course,' Webb said. 'You did the right thing, staying inside. There was nothing you could have done out there, and it might have been dangerous for you.'
They waited in silence for the tea to be made and served, allowing her time to recover her composure. They sat around the table, Wendy on one side, the officers on the other. She opened a tin, a Delft blue with a windmill and tulips on the lid, and offered biscuits.
'So, do I take it you know these people?' Webb asked.
'Henry and Susan Lang. They were my clients.'
'Clients?' Raymond asked.
'I'm a welfare officer for the High Court – for divorce and child custody cases. The judges ask us to interview the parties and write a report if they need information or an evaluation for a case they're doing.'
'What kind of report would that be?' Webb asked.
'It varies. In most cases, I report on arrangements for children, to help the court to decide who should get custody, or how much access to allow the non-custodial parent. In some cases, it's just to assess the prospects for a reconciliation before the case goes ahead.'
Webb suddenly felt his stomach turn over. He glanced at Raymond.
'What kind of report were you doing in the Langs' case?'
'It's about the children. The divorce would probably have gone undefended – they couldn't wait to get rid of each other – but there was going to be a hell of a fight over custody and access. Mr Justice Wesley had given Susan interim custody, with liberal access to Henry. But that doesn't mean she would have got custody after a full hearing. There were two sides to that.'
'How old are the children?' Raymond asked.
'Marianne is seven, and Stephanie is five.'
'More importantly,' Webb asked, 'where are the children?'
'Oh, they're safe,' Wendy replied. 'They will be with Susan's mother. That's where they spend most of their time, if the truth be known. Susan was always ready to fight for them and scream about how much she loved them when she was in court, or with me, but I'm not sure she thought about them very much the rest of the time.'
'But she was determined to get custody?'
'Yes. But so was he; even more so, if anything.'
'Were you ready to submit your report?'
'No. The judge asked for the report before he held the next hearing, but I told him I would need at least six weeks because of pressure of work and I still had some way to go. I would have had to do a detailed inspection of both homes – the matrimonial home, where Henry is still living, and Susan's flat. Then I would have met with both of them again, at least once individually and once together, before I prepared my final draft.'
'I see. And they were in a meeting with you today, between what times?'
'Between 12.30 and 1.30, or thereabouts.'
'Did you see either of them with a knife?'
She reacted sharply.
'Good God, no. I wouldn't tolerate anything like that. I would have called the meeting off immediately. Then I would have called the police, and reported it to the court.'
'So, what did you see through the window?' She froze, cup in hand, and looked somewhere into the distance above Webb's head.
'As I say, they left at about 1.30,' she replied. 'I came back here to the kitchen to sort something out for lunch, but after a few minutes, I thought I could hear raised voices. I made my way back to the front room, and I saw Henry and Susan arguing. They were across the street, and they had stepped just inside the mews. I couldn't hear everything they were saying, but it was obviously about the children. We had been talking about the children during the meeting, of course. I was about to go outside and remind them that arguing in front of me wasn't the wisest thing for them to be doing, when I was going to report on them to the judge. And then ...'
'It's all right, Mrs Cameron. Take your time.'