(a short story)
In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it. However, as those who know me well will no doubt testify, begging for anything is hardly my style.
There is also the thought that the person or person’s who sent me a death threat would hardly be open to me pleading for my sorry life, now would they?
OK, in my ex-line of work, dealing as I did with the so called criminal elite, I have had my fair share of death threats. Most of them hardly worth a mention; thrown in my general direction as a last act of defiance from one low life or another. So why, I ask myself, does this one trouble me so much?
Could it be that this one doesn’t appear to be an idle threat or the fact that it is well over ten years since I had anything to do with the criminal world or its inhabitants?
There is always revenge I suppose, some maniacal killer recently released from prison out to impress his old pals or trying to get his street cred back. It would be easy enough for me to check on who was back in circulation, someone who feels there’s an old score to settle.
Although, as I think about it, it’s not a particularly good theory, as I cast my mind back, most of the villains I’ve put away were doers not thinkers. No, their style would be to track you down and stick a serious blade into your back. Or if they could get hold of a gun they might, just might, look you in the eye before pulling the trigger. Nah! This threat comes from a thinker.
This is from someone who wants me to fear him, confident that I have no idea who he is or why he wants me dead. This is from someone who wants me to spend my last few days on earth in a cold sweat, constantly looking over my shoulder.
Why else would he send me a death threat that announces the very day I will die?
So! Do I go running to my ex-colleagues for protection, Me, the guy who probably has as many enemies in the force as within the opposition? Don’t get me wrong I was a good copper, hard but fair and I didn’t turn a blind eye when looking upon either side. Of course if you do that in the force you don’t make many friends.
Me, battling ex-Detective Inspector Joe Sutton, shot and seriously wounded in the line of duty, awarded a medal, an honourable mention in something or other, then invalided out, pensioned off with a huge sigh of relief from both sides.
Still there may be one or two that might help, but I think for the time being I’m on my own; it’s my ass and my responsibility to protect it, time to do some thinking of my own, come up with a plan of attack.
Shit ! Listen to me, stupid old fool! Plan of attack, who the hell do you think you are? Ten years ago and twenty pounds lighter and without the gammy leg maybe but today it’s not a plan of attack I need but a plan of defence.
Outthink the thinker, that’s the plan; never mind who it is, that will come later once he is defeated. He, whoever he is has been planning this for some time. He obviously has a strategy; he has a target: ‘ME;’ he presumably has a means of execution and a way to carry it out.
So all I have to do is put myself in his shoes, look at myself as the target and then work out how I will murder myself. Brilliant! Absolutely… brilliant! And I’ve got three days to work it out and come up with a plan to stop myself.
OK, smart arse, what else you got? Fight or Flight? Those are the options. If I stay and fight I have to work out who I’m fighting and stop him before he stops me. Alternatively, if I fly, how do I know if I fly away free? After all, if I don’t know who wants me dead, how do I know he is not watching me, anticipating that I might run? Besides where would I run to? Somewhere where I can see him coming, obviously, so where might that be?
If I stay, can I work it out in time? Am I under surveillance? How can I tell or even find out? As a policeman it was always me doing the watching; now it’s me being watched. I am now the hunted….
“This is Bollocks!” How in the name of God am I going to acquire such skills? When I was the watcher I knew who I was watching and why; knew their nasty little habits and most of their dirty secrets so if I lost sight of them for a while I knew where they would run.
Now the boot is on the other foot and a nasty thought has just occurred to me: does he know me as well as I once knew them?
Fine, once more from the top: the letter arrived in the post today in a standard creamy white envelope, good quality, self adhesive seal and stamp, so no DNA help there! Posted locally yesterday with a first class stamp; so what? Doesn’t mean the villain lives locally, just that he was here yesterday, which makes sense if he is watching me.
Whoa! Get out of that habit right now! I cannot assume that it’s a he… it could just as easily be a she or they, for that matter. Of course I can’t assume he, she, or they are not local either, which adds absolutely sod all to the sum total of my knowledge.
The letter itself: good quality paper matching the envelope. So whoever it is has style or elegance. Hints at his upbringing, perhaps? Could be I’m dealing with an educated person, older rather than younger. The youth of today would send an email or worse, a phone text message in that peculiar language of theirs. What do they call it? “Text speech”? ‘U R DED !’ Or some such rubbish.
The message is plain enough, typed on an anonymous computer, larger than necessary type font set in bold red letters, presumably for a more dramatic effect:
The time has come for you to pay your debt to society. No court in this land will ever hand you a death sentence; so we must do it for them.
You will be taken from this place to a place of execution where you will Die!
The date for your execution has been set April 23rd.
April 23rd, Saint George’s Day. I looked it up. Three days from today; I wonder if there is any significance to the day itself? Must confess none springs readily to mind. Can’t remember pissing anyone off of on a Saint George’s Day; doesn’t mean I haven’t, of course.
What about what is written? It refers to a debt to society which would suggest that whatever he is talking about was illegal and somehow I got away with it; something serious enough to warrant a death sentence? Again nothing comes into my mind.
Yeah! OK, I bent a few rules; what copper hasn’t? But every villain I put away deserved it and if they were put away it means a judge and jury agreed with me.
What about the bit that says “You will be taken from this place to a place of execution…”?
That’s how the old judges used to speak when dishing out death penalties. Why didn’t they finish it properly? “….to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you be dead and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Does this mean I can rule out being hung? What if I am not in this place when he comes?
Nah! That won’t work; just means he’ll start all over again. One way to find out if Saint George’s day has anything to do with it, I suppose. Would he wait another year? Could I?
I need a drink and a walk; all this effort trying to outthink a thinker is giving me a headache.
First part of the plan: I will do nothing out of the ordinary. He has played the first card now he will wait for me to respond. Therefore if I do nothing it should throw him.
So down to the shops, collect my newspaper, and off to the pub; and if the weather holds a stroll in the park and home for tea.
He has put me on my guard and now he must assume that I am looking for him, which makes his job of watching me a lot harder.
Of course there is also the possibility that he assumes I will play it cool, in which case I am doing exactly what he wanted me to do in the first place. Now I really do need that drink!
If he has been watching me he will know that I don’t walk a regular route nor do I have a set daily routine; so if I go left, right or straight on, it won’t alarm anybody. There are three places where I can pick up a newspaper; which one I choose usually depends on which pub I’m heading for, but not always.
That works to my advantage. This morning I shall go left out of the house and walk a slow circular route. It’s a nice sunny morning, not too cold. I’ll get a paper at the filling station at the crossroads, cross over and head for the park.
One thing which hadn’t occurred to me until this moment, but another great advantage I have is this gammy leg. I can’t walk very fast so it’s virtually impossible for anyone to follow me in any mode of transport without being obvious. Even on foot it won’t be easy unless they too are shuffling along with a walking stick.
OK! So far, so what? I have used every dodge imaginable: shop windows as mirrors, hesitating longer than necessary before crossing roads, and even on one occasion playing the absent minded old fool and doubling back to one shop.
Nothing! If I am being followed, I can’t spot him. Even sitting in the park for half an hour proves a waste of time. I managed to read nothing and all I have for my troubles is a cold backside and pigeon crap on my shoulder.
Therefore I assume they are either very good at what they do, or alternatively, I am not being followed at all, conclusions that hardly help in my present predicament. However, one thing has become clear: I do need help. Question is whose? I can’t lean on any old snouts. Why would they help anyway? I’ve nothing on them anymore, assuming of course that they’re still around.
As I push my way into the public bar at the Lamb and Flag, I order a pint of best and a sandwich as I pass through to the gents to remove the offending bird droppings when a voice behind me brings me to a sudden halt.
“Joe Sutton, as I live and breathe! Ain’t seen you since, hell I can’t remember when.”
I turn and look into the smiling face of Ray Lynch, an old hack from the local evening news paper. “Well I’ll be damned. Ray…Ray Lynch! How are you, you old bugger? Still writing lies about the local constabulary?”
His smile hardly wavered. “ Nah! They’re better behaved these days, what with all that political correctness crap they have to put up with. Pity really, because it doesn’t help them catch any more criminals, Hey! How about a drink?”
As he babbled on about the old days my mind raced in different directions. Two thoughts struggled to emerge. This was the first familiar face I’d seen since leaving the house, at least a face from the past. Coincidence or is this my tail?
More thoughts follow in quick succession. One, I don’t believe in coincidences; two, why him? And three, do I treat him as friend or foe?
He’s still babbling so to stop him I say, “My round…”, and I head for the bar, my brain reeling. “Friend or Foe?” What did I ever do to him that he would wait ten years to put right? He was here first, so he can’t have been here waiting for me. This is hardly my usual haunt. Sure, I come here from time to time, but even I didn’t know I was coming here. Even if he saw me in the park and raced ahead, I could just as easily have gone on to the Red Lion.
“Friend or Foe?” What was that old saying? “Keep your friends close, but your enemy’s closer!” Thing is until now I’d never consider Lynch as either one or the other.
Right now I know sod all and I’m getting nowhere fast. I need an ally; Ray could be useful if he’s a friend. On the other hand, if he’s the one dishing out death threats, am I any worse off than I was this morning?
“Here you go Ray; wrap yourself round that.”
“What’s this? A whisky and a pint; you must want something.”
“Suspicious old bugger, can’t a pal buy another pal a drink?”
There was that smile again. “Pals can, but you and me, more like terrorist and hostage, us two.”
“That was the old days; now I’m just a washed up Ex copper. But you’re right I am in need of a favour. Here take a look at this.”
That took the smile off his face, it’s hard to smile and whistle at the same time. “Is this for real? A death threat! What do you want me to do with it, run it as a story?”
“Damn me Ray; is all that you can think about, a story for that rag of yours? Besides, ‘Ex Policeman gets blown away’ would make better headlines. All you have to do is wait a couple of days.”
“So what then?”
“I need help to find out who’s behind it, you Pillock!”
“Me? Why me all of a sudden? What’s wrong with your old pals? Surely they’re better qualified…?”
“No they’re not and, besides, who says they’d treat me to the old pals act? Today I’d be just another member of Joe Blow public. I wouldn’t get past the desk sergeant and you know it. Plus by the time they get round to checking anything out….”
He interrupted; “If- they get round to checking things out.”
“Precisely; I’ll either be dead or the chief suspect in a violent crime.”
That smile was back. “This is fantastic. Either way I get a Scoop! This is National front page stuff, this! What a way to end a career. ”
“Yours or mine? Seeing as you are so bloody happy with yourself, this needs refilling,” and I drained my whisky glass.
By the time he got back he was a little more serious. “So how can I help?”
“Well for starters you can put your ferret like mind to the one thing we know for sure: Saint George’s Day. The more I think about it, it has to be significant, not to me but to somebody who wishes me harm. “
Handing back the letter he smiled again. “I can do that for old time’s sake. You’re still at the same address and phone number?”
“Yeah, still the same but let’s meet here or another pub. If he is watching me there’s no point putting yourself at risk.”
With that he drained his glass, slapped me on the shoulder and with the words, “I’ll be in touch,” and he was gone.
When he asked if I was still at the same old address it occurred to me to lie and say no. But he was a reporter; why lie? If he was a friend then he needed to know; if he was involved then he already knew where I lived.
Needless to say I did not sleep very well. I must have nodded off a few times but my thoughts were never far from the subject of the day as a series of past adversaries wandered into and out of my subconscious.
I rose early and had a bath. My head throbbed from yesterday’s whisky. It had been my favourite tipple once, but mixing it with the pills and potions the quacks keep feeding me does create some weird side effects which I don’t like.
Later as I head outside to greet the day I notice it’s a lot colder without the benefit of yesterday’s sunshine; so I’ll just pick up a newspaper and head straight for the greasy spoon cafe down by the old market. After that it will be off to the library for a bit of research, both excellent open spaces where I can see everybody coming and going.
Of course everybody can see me as well, a wide open target if you like. But there again, trundling along at two miles an hour with a heavy limp and a stick, I am always going to be vulnerable anywhere outside the house.
By late afternoon I gave it up as complete waste of time. I’d lost all track of time in the library; and at one point they very nearly put me out with a couple of afternoon drunks who’d slipped in for a quick nap.
So was I any closer to finding out who was out to nail my butt to a tree? Well, In a word, ‘No!’ Although I am a lot more knowledgeable about Saint George’s day!
I can only hope that Ray Lynch is having more success than I am. My only consolation is that if any poor sod is following me and he wasn’t in the library, I can swear that by now he must be bored stupid and frozen from hanging about outside.
Perhaps it has something to do with my mood which is sinking lower as the day wears on, but I can’t settle to anything, watching TV, reading the newspaper, a book; nothing. I am sick to death of thinking, or more to the point, trying to not think. I keep telling myself there’s no point in it. I know nothing so there is no chance that something is going to suddenly jump into my head and solve the riddle.
The fact that there has been no contact from Ray does little to lift my sagging spirits either. Presumably, like me, he is twenty four hours older and none the wiser.
Perhaps tomorrow I should go to the police station and tell them…. what exactly and expect them to do what?
Even with everything they have at their disposal they are unlikely to work things out in a day. That’s assuming they will do anything except make reassuring, “There, there; you just leave everything up to us, Sir,” type noises.
Why rush? If the death threat is a fake, then why waste time on it? Twenty four hours, give or take, and they will know. If it’s true, then they can hand it over as a murder enquiry to the plain clothes mob and wash their hands of it.
Damn. If I slept badly the night before it’s nothing to what’s happening now. With the eerie red glow of the bedside digital clock a constant reminder that I am still wide awake as I watch the numbers change ticking off the night and, who knows, maybe the very minutes of my life.
Was this it? Was this fear…true fear? I have never felt anything like this in my life; strange, given my old occupation and the various situations in which I found myself. But most of those were without pre-planning, they just happened and I dealt with them. The sickening fear came afterwards when I reviewed what happened and how stupid or lucky I had been. Perhaps that wasn’t fear but shock.
Was this what my executioner had in mind when sending me that warning?
Is this how a prisoner on death row feels when he knows it’s tomorrow?
But to die and not to know the reason; No, that won’t happen. I’m dealing with a thinker. He will want me to know; he’ll tell me. That’s part of the plan; it will give him…. what the hell do the Yanks call it? “Closure.” That’s it; that’s what he thinks he’ll be getting.
But it won’t be like that, will it? Kill me and then he becomes the hunted; constantly looking over his shoulder, knowing that the wheels of justice, although grinding slowly, will pull him in sooner or later. Not much consolation for me, of course.
I wonder if I will be able to explain that to him: revenge is not justice!
I must have dozed off because there is light peeking under the curtains, but I feel far from refreshed; in fact I feel terrible. My head aches and so does my leg. I feel hungry but have no idea for what.
What happens if Ray doesn’t call today? Is there any point in calling him?
I’ll give him until lunch time and then… and then I will go to the police station and see if I can talk to somebody down there. Not uniform; if I can’t get past the front desk I won’t bother.
A hot bath has eased the pain in my leg, that and twice the recommended dose of pain killers. What’s it going to do, kill me?
I still have the headache, although I might cure that with fresh air, but looking out the window, I realise it’s pissing down.
Halfway through making myself a bacon sandwich, the phone rings. In spite of not having my walking stick to hand I make it in three wobbly hops. “Hello!”
“Joe! It’s Ray. Look, mate, sorry I didn’t get back to you yesterday, but, well you know how things are.”
I didn’t know how things were and was about to say so, but said instead, “No problem Ray. What’s new?”
“To be honest Joe, not a lot; you remember Reginald Holder?”
“PC Reginald Holder, everybody used to call him…”
“Reggie;” I jump in to speed things up a bit, “he was in charge of the station lock ups. What about him?”
“Well if you remember, he was in charge of a lot more than just the cells; he used to do all the files and stuff in the days before computers. He never could get used to the damn things and he got kind of bypassed…”
“It’s great going down memory lane with you Ray but is there a point coming any time soon?”
“Tell you what; it’s a long story and only a faint idea. Meet me in the Red Lion at two and I’ll get Reggie to join us.” He hung up. Reggie Holder, I remember him now; we used to call him the memory man; better than any bloody computer.
I hardly felt the rain on the way to the pub my mind was racing trying to think what might be stirring in Reggie’s mind. He must have retired years ago; but I suppose a mind like his just keeps sifting and sorting things away.
By the time I reached the pub Reggie and Ray were there; so with a fresh round of drinks and the pleasantries out of the way, we got down to the matter in hand. One thing I had forgotten about Reggie was that unlike a computer you couldn’t just press a button. Getting to the relevant point was like pulling teeth.
As suspected the relevant point was Saint George’s Day. But the only thing of any significance that sprang to Reggie’s mind was that two years ago a prisoner committed suicide in a remand centre while awaiting trial on a drugs related offence.
That was it! Silence followed and my heart just sank to the pit of my stomach. “So bloody what?
Reggie just sat there, then he said softly, “He had a funny name; that’s why I remembered him; Bartholomew Braithwaite, seemed such an unlikely name.”
That’s when the bell in my head went off! It’s not the sort of name you forget. Reggie went on, “If me memory serves didn’t you put him away about twelve year ago for dealing drugs in the local university-?”
“Yeah I remember. He tried to plead that he was only a user, but I had him down as a pusher. But surely he only got a couple of years. How could his death two years ago result in somebody wanting to kill me?”
There was that silence again.
Ray spoke first, “So what do you think?”
I smiled weakly at them. “It’s a bit thin; I can’t go to the police with that.”
Reggie spoke up, “Why not? We’ve started cases with a lot less than that. You go to them, Mr. Sutton; with that, the letter, and the fact that it’s you…”
Ray added. “It can’t hurt. What else you going to do?”
Of course they had a point; I was nearly out of time and out of ideas. I could go to the police or sit and wait until the appointed hour and see if their theory was correct.
Back outside it was still raining, getting darker and colder by the minute. As I walked towards the police station I was filled with apprehension as to how I would be received. However, after a few minutes of brief introductions with a constable who looks like a school boy, I was ushered upstairs and into the station commander’s office, no less.
He held the letter in his hand; “Well Sutton, it’s like this. We take potential death threats against police officers very seriously indeed be they serving or retired. We will look into this matter, on that you have my solemn oath.”
I thanked him and with a wry smile I asked, “Sir, you do know that Saint George’s Day is tomorrow?”
He returned my smile, but only just. “Yes Sutton that point did not escape me; now bugger off and leave it to us, there’s a good chap.”
I suppose I was relieved or just too tired to care, but that night I slept soundly and woke a lot happier than I had been since this thing had started. Perhaps if I had just gone to the police from the word go I could have saved myself a lot of anxiety.
By mid-morning, although I had heard nothing from anyone, I was still feeling relaxed when the phone rang. It was Ray. Jokingly I said. “The Ides of March have come!”
His reply was chilling. “Ay, Caesar, but not gone!” Then he added, “So, my friend, what’s new?”
“Nothing as yet,” is all I can say as I give him a rundown of my actions of yesterday. He seemed faintly disappointed. As to whether that is because I am still alive or the police have nothing to report, I can’t say. Either way he still didn’t have his story.
I got the news after lunch: a Detective Sergeant I’ve never heard of phoned me to say that it’s all over.
Apparently in the early hours of the morning at Braithwaite’s house they challenged him on the origins of the death threat and it seems he cracked almost immediately, breaking down and confessing all, his story being that as a student, his son was studying law and his small lapse into recreational drugs was blown out beyond all proportion by yours truly.
Being sent down for a couple of years ruined the boy’s education and put an end to any ambition of joining mummy and daddy in the family law firm. It seemed that his dependence on drugs became worse while he was in prison, resulting in many more brushes with the law; and somehow this was all my fault.
He concluded his report by saying that Braithwaite was now in custody and would be charged in due course. I thanked him and hung up.
Suddenly I felt funny. My legs were like jelly and I wanted to throw up. My brow was covered in cold sweat and I was shaking all over. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry now that it was all over.
I have no idea how long I stood gripping the back of the armchair. I certainly have no recollection of any thoughts that may have been passing through my mind…
I called Ray and gave him the news. At least now he had something to report, unfortunately not the earth shattering news scoop he wanted, but what the hell. I wasn’t planning to die just to please the media. He offered a celebratory drink which I declined. Over or not, I have no plans to leave the house today.
As the feeling slowly returned to my body I realised that a lot of the pain and some of the dizziness could be down to hunger; I haven’t eaten all day and I can’t remember the last decent meal I had.
As I busied myself in the kitchen, the front door bell rang and for some strange reason all my apprehension returned.
Before I could bring myself to answer it, I peeked out from behind the curtains to see who it was. It turned out to be a very well dressed woman. She looked like one of those bloody ‘Do-Gooders’ that are forever bugging me for donations to one charity or another, collecting clothes or whatever. I’m tired of sending them away with the same old story that everything I’ve got I’m still wearing, but nevertheless I answered the door with a smile.
“Detective Inspector Sutton, my name is Susan Braithwaite…. Bartholomew’s mother; I believe we have an appointment!”
About the author: Merlin Fraser
Next week is author, David Mattichak.