Read TT13 Time of Death Online

Authors: Mark Billingham

TT13 Time of Death (5 page)

Linda thought for a few moments, then sat back as though she was finally ready to discuss the thing that everyone else in town was talking about. ‘He didn’t do it, you know?’ She took Helen’s hand and looked hard at her. Her fingers dug in. ‘He didn’t take those girls.’

There was a knock, and a cheery voice announced the arrival of tea.

Helen nodded, because there was not a lot else she could do.

SIX

Once Bates and his solicitor were seated again, DI Tim Cornish closed the door and joined them at the table. Pulling back a chair, he began removing photographs from a green, cardboard folder. He took a last drag on his e-cigarette – the tip glowing blue – then slipped it back into his top pocket.

He said, ‘So, are you done? We ready to get back to it?’

The duty solicitor was a young woman called Tasmina Khan. She had never had any dealings with Cornish before; had never been involved in anything with as high a profile as this investigation already had. If she was daunted by the new-found notoriety of the man sitting next to her, she did not show it.

She sat back in her chair. ‘My client has every right to consult with me privately whenever either of us chooses.’

‘Goes without saying,’ Cornish said. ‘Just keen to crack on, that’s all. Sooner we can get this done, the sooner Mr Bates can get back to his family.’ He smiled at Stephen Bates. ‘To Linda and the kids.’

Khan said nothing. A look was enough. She knew as well as
Cornish did that Bates was unlikely to be seeing his wife and kids any time soon. The twenty-four hours after which Cornish would have to charge or release would be up quickly enough, but she knew that he would apply for a custody extension. She knew that he would get it.

Cornish pressed the red button on the twin CD recorders built into the wall of the interview room. He glanced up at the camera in the corner, then across at the two-way mirror, through which he knew that a small crowd of colleagues and senior officers would be watching.

‘Interview with Stephen Oliver Bates, recommencing at one thirty-seven pm on Saturday, February 14th.’ He identified himself and Khan, his fingers fluttering at his top pocket. ‘So, this was the first time you had given Poppy Johnston a lift? The day before yesterday. You’d never seen her before?’

Bates hesitated, glanced at his solicitor.

‘It’s a simple enough question, Mr Bates.’

Stephen Bates was forty-three years old and had described himself to the police as a self-employed painter and decorator. He was pale-skinned, with dark hair that was shorter than it had been in his wedding photograph and a scruffy, gingerish beard. He was skinny; his jeans baggy on him, as was the paint-flecked polo shirt he had been wearing when police arrived to arrest him at his home the previous afternoon.

‘Seen her, yeah,’ Bates said. His voice was quiet and flat. A Midlands accent. ‘Said hello or whatever. That’s all though.’

Khan turned to look at him, and Cornish understood that after more than half an hour together, solicitor and client discussing the options available, the issue of whether it was in Bates’ best interests to say anything at all had still not been resolved.

It was good to know.

‘And she was in your car for what, fifteen minutes, you said?’

‘Less than that. Ten minutes or something. I told her I couldn’t
take her all the way, but I was happy to run her as far as the bus stop on the Tamworth Road.’

‘Good of you.’

‘It was on my way. It looked like it was about to piss down.’

‘What did you talk about?’

‘I can’t remember.’

‘School? Boyfriends?’

‘I can’t remember. Maybe.’

‘And you didn’t stop anywhere on the way?’

‘I took her to the bus stop, I told you. Straight there.’

‘Because you thought it might rain,’ Cornish said.

‘Hasn’t bloody stopped raining, has it?’

Cornish grunted, looked down at his notes. ‘Tell us again what you did after you dropped Poppy off.’

Bates sighed, but his answer sounded confident enough. ‘Went to check out a job in Atherstone. Woman over there wants the outside of her house painting, so I drove across to have a look.’

‘Half six at night? Pitch black by then.’

‘I just needed to see the house, that’s all. Get a rough idea of what I’d be dealing with.’

‘And after that?’

‘I told you, I went for a pint at a pub up the road from there. You can check all this with Linda.’

‘We did and that’s certainly what you
told
her you were doing when you rang her.’ Another glance at the notes. ‘At about six thirty, she says.’

Bates looked pleased, as if that should be enough. ‘There you are.’

‘She told us that you didn’t get home until after nine.’

‘I had a couple of pints and something to eat. Truth is I wasn’t in a rush to get back. Me and Linda had a row that morning, so …’

‘A row about what?’

‘Can’t even remember now. Sod all, probably.’

‘Problem is, Mr Bates, we can’t find anyone in the pub who can verify that you were there.’ Cornish leaned back. ‘Landlord doesn’t remember you.’

‘Why should he?’ Bates said. ‘Place was rammed. There was a big game on the TV.’

That much Cornish had been able to verify. Chelsea had beaten Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. There had indeed been a bigger than average crowd in the pub that night.

Cornish took three photographs of Poppy Johnston and lined them up. In two of them, she was posing with friends in a local pub. The most striking of the group; blonde and blue-eyed, made-up and dressed for a night out. The newspapers had chosen to use the slightly more demure photograph of the girl in her nicest party dress. Fresh-faced with a smile that was rather more tentative.

Cornish tapped at a photograph. ‘She was all dressed up on Thursday night, wasn’t she? Glittery top and a short skirt. “Too short”, her dad says.’

‘I don’t remember what she had on,’ Bates said. ‘She was wearing a coat anyway. One of those padded ones.’

‘So that wasn’t why you stopped and offered her a lift then? It wasn’t because you liked the look of her? Because she looked nice?’

Bates shook his head.

‘Just out of the kindness of your heart.’

‘I’ve told you,’ Khan said to Bates. ‘You do not have to answer these questions if you don’t want to.’

Bates was looking at Cornish. ‘You want me to say I don’t think she was pretty, that it? Jesus, I’m not blind, am I?’ He stabbed at the picture. ‘Course she’s pretty. That what you wanted to hear?’

Cornish let it hang for a few moments, then produced another
photograph and slid it across the scarred black tabletop. ‘Could you please look at this photograph?’

After a second or two, Bates looked down, but not for very long. ‘Have another look,’ Cornish said. When Bates looked again, Cornish leaned towards the CD recorder. ‘Mr Bates is looking at a photograph of Jessica Toms.’

‘That’s the first girl who went missing.’

‘You knew her?’

‘Only to say hello to.’

‘You say hello to a lot of fifteen-year-old girls, do you, Mr Bates?’

‘I would advise you to ignore that,’ Khan said.

‘You see people around, don’t you?’ Bates said. ‘In the pub, in the street or whatever.’

‘Did you give Jessica Toms a lift on January 23rd of this year?’

Bates shook his head. ‘I did not.’

‘Was Jessica Toms ever in your car?’

‘No.’

‘You quite sure about that?’

‘She was never in my car.’

‘You know we’ve got your car, obviously.’

‘If you damage it, you’ll pay me for that, right?’

‘You know we’ll be taking it apart and that if she
was
in your car, we’re going to know about it? She’ll have left a trace behind, everybody does. These days, somebody so much as kisses you on the cheek, we can get DNA from it. Just saying, in case you want to think about your answer a bit more.’

‘I never gave her a lift.’

‘You remember where you were on January 23rd?’

‘Do you?’

‘I’m not the one under arrest,’ Cornish said.

‘No, I can’t remember,’ Bates said. ‘Working.’

Cornish nodded, happy enough to leave the question, though
not for very long. He glanced towards the two-way mirror, then picked up the photograph of Jessica Toms. He looked at it himself for a few seconds, then laid it down again. ‘So, you think
she’s
pretty?’

‘Do
you
?’ Bates gave the first hint of a smile, pleased with himself.

‘Really? You think you’re helping yourself, just throwing questions back at me like that?’

Bates scratched at his beard, the smile gone, uncertain.

Khan leaned forward. ‘OK, I’d like some more time to confer with my client in private.’

‘Again?’ Cornish asked.

Bates turned to the solicitor. ‘Thing is, if I say nothing, they think it’s because I’ve got something to hide.’

‘It’s your right to refuse to answer questions.’

Bates wasn’t listening. He nodded at Cornish. ‘That’s right, isn’t it?’

Cornish held up his hands.

‘If I don’t answer you, just say “no comment” or whatever, you think it’s because I must have done it.’

‘That’s not how it works,’ Khan said.

‘Miss Khan is spot on,’ Cornish said. ‘You can sit there all day long and say bugger all if you want, but we are allowed to draw what’s called an
adverse influence
from that.’ He waited, to be sure that Bates understood what he meant. ‘You remember what was said to you when you were arrested?’

‘I’ve been through all that with him,’ Khan snapped. ‘I have done this before.’

Cornish leaned closer to Bates. ‘About you failing to mention something which you later come to rely on in court? About how that can harm your defence?’ He sat back, folded his arms. ‘But it’s entirely up to you, obviously.’

Bates looked at the table.

Khan turned towards him again. ‘When we were talking earlier, Mr Bates. Remember those three options?’ She spoke with an emphasis that bordered on the patronising. Cornish was happy to see that she had clearly decided her client did not know decent advice when he was given it. Or else was simply not the sharpest tool in the box. ‘You can answer questions if you wish, or you can say nothing. The third option is to provide the police with a written statement and then refuse to answer any more questions after that.’

‘Yeah, I remember,’ Bates said. ‘You think I should do that? The last one you said?’

‘As of this moment, that would be my best advice.’

Cornish had to stifle a smile.
Because you’re worried about looking guilty, but you can’t keep your big gob shut

Bates thought for another few seconds, then nodded and looked across at Cornish. ‘I’ll go for that one.’

The DI looked up at the mirror again. ‘Your call,’ he said.

Cornish terminated the interview for the record and began gathering up the photographs. He picked up the picture of Jessica Toms and looked at it again. He said, ‘She’s really pretty. Any idiot can see that.’ He reached for his e-cigarette. ‘To be honest, Stephen, I would have been a damn sight more suspicious if you’d said she wasn’t.’

SEVEN

Thorne had been waiting in the incident room at Nuneaton station for half an hour or so when Cornish finally appeared. Thorne didn’t mind. He had passed the time talking to as many of those working on the investigation as possible, and, even if he had not learned anything that he did not already know, the coffee was an awful lot better than the stuff that got dished out back at Becke House.

It became quickly obvious to him that the whole place was rather better equipped than the incident room he was used to at home. The computers seemed newer, the whiteboards somehow whiter.

The place did not feel quite as tired.

It was probably just a question of funding, of a more efficient distribution of available funds. Or perhaps the place just saw a lot less action. Waiting for Cornish to arrive though, Thorne could not help asking himself how much of it was down to the drive and energy of the people working here. Were some of those he worked with at home just burned out, or going through the motions these days? He wondered if the day would come when
he would be guilty of ‘phoning it in’ and if it did, would anyone tell him. Holland? Probably not. Hendricks …?

Yeah, he thought that Phil Hendricks would.

Cornish was easy enough to spot. The one being collared by a member of his team the moment he walked in, staring across while the man who was waiting to see him was helpfully pointed out.

Thorne stood up and Cornish beckoned him over; waved him into an office.

‘You had coffee? I’m always gasping after a couple of hours in the bin …’

Cornish was a few years younger than Thorne and if there was any grey in his hair he had covered it up skilfully. He was compact and wiry, like a flyweight. In his smart suit and rimless glasses, Thorne thought that he looked like an accountant, albeit one who might knock you out if you questioned his calculations.

As soon as he had sat down behind a cluttered desk, Cornish said, ‘What took you so long?’

Thorne took the chair that had been offered. ‘Sorry?’

‘I’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond!’ Cornish took an e-cigarette from his pocket and puffed on it theatrically.

Sophie Carson had clearly given her boss a complete report on the visitors from London.

‘No big deal,’ Cornish said. ‘We’ve got a few like you round here. Can’t take a day off.’

‘I’m just killing time,’ Thorne said.

‘Course you are.’

‘Don’t know what else to tell you.’ Thorne laughed, but the remarks had hit home. Was that what he had become? ‘Job-pissed’ was what they called the type Cornish was talking about, what Thorne called them too. It was usually aimed at those who played everything by the book, who would rather die than deviate
from procedure. Thorne knew that wasn’t him, but he was clearly finding it hard to leave the job behind. Perhaps being ‘job-pissed’ wasn’t the issue. Maybe it was just a question of what your tipple was.

Some people could only get pissed on the hard stuff.

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