Sneak Preview of Jeff Dowson’s The Bristol Thrillers

3 May 2022

Closing the Distance

Marvin Starratt was a despicable human being.

An assessment Judge Chambers heartily agreed with and sent him down for eleven years. Apologising to the court, the public gallery and the journalists on the press bench for not being able to incarcerate him longer.

“Unhappily, this is the maximum sentence I can impose,” he said. “I can only recommend that you are made to serve the full term.”

I watched from the public gallery. Starratt had beaten up and raped a client of mine. And four other women, over a period of seven months. I helped find him and get him arrested. A small victory, and you have to hang on to those, but Starratt had brutally invaded the lives of five women and changed them forever.

My client and I met downstairs in the lobby. We shook hands.

“Thank you,” she said.

“My pleasure,” I said.

She turned, negotiated the big glass swing door and stepped out into the street.

The chances are, Louise and I will never meet again. She came to me in distress, frustrated and angry that the police were making no progress in finding the man they considered their prime suspect. Upright coppers have to work by the book. I’m liberated from that kind of consideration. Admittedly, I don’t have their resources, but I can go places they can’t. I found Starratt in a flat in Stokes Croft. He swung at me with a cricket bat. I took it from him, hit him with it and delivered him to the police. Louise gave me a cheque, the Inspector heading up the investigation team gave me his thanks and Starratt got his day in court. It was a job satisfactorily done. But I couldn’t help to manage the fall-out. This is always the bit that bothers me. And the bit that never lets go entirely. My client cases get filed away in my office filing cabinet, and each time, I hope there has been something about the case that has added to my learning experience. Something that will short cut the route to a successful conclusion of the next job I take on.

There was an angry bellow from behind me. I looked back across the lobby. A man in a brown tweed suit was squaring up to a barrister who was taking off his wig. He ripped the wig out of the barrister’s hand it and threw it across the lobby.

“Call that a fucking defence?” he yelled.

Lloyd Starratt was laying in to his brother’s brief.

None of the Starratts can be described as nature’s noblemen. The family has lived in the Forest of Dean since Noah was a lad. Earning a living down the years, as woodsmen, charcoal burners, farmers, miners, landowners, petty criminals and local terrorists. The whole tribe of head bangers and hard cases operates, without much correction, like the bad guys in a Kentucky backwoods movie.

This one, Marvin’s older brother Lloyd, was the head of the clan. In his mid-50s, at the moment in his default setting and making his presence felt. As hard as nails and a seasoned scrapper, he had a lot of clout in his neck of the woods. A member of the Rotary Club, a big noise in the Severn Valley Hunt and briefly, the local Tory party agent – for a particularly barmy right-wing MP who got in at a by election, but was ousted at the following general election, when the good people of the constituency returned to their senses. Perhaps more damaging, for a while he contrived to get himself on to the JP’s bench. An alarming west country re-creation of Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob.

The barrister took a couple of paces backwards. Lloyd squared up to him again. A couple of security men sped across the lobby and intervened before he could do any damage. He elbowed one of them in the chest and attempted to kick the other in the crutch, before they pinned his arms to his sides and hauled him across the lobby to the swing door. As Lloyd passed me, I was given the benefit of his opinion too.

“As for you, you fucker… Just you fucking wait.”

The security men heaved him into the revolving door and swung him out into the street. He completed a full 360 on the pavement before he regained his balance. Then he focused on me through the glass and malevolently gave me the finger. I gave him a cheery wave.

The barrister had retrieved his wig. He stepped towards me.

“Mr Shepherd,” he said. “I’m sorry about that.”

I told him he had no need to apologise.

“If people like Lloyd start inviting me to dinner,” I said, “it will be time to take a serious look at what I do.”

We shook hands.

“I’m truly glad you lost.”

“In truth, so am I,” he said.

I stepped out into the street and walked the three hundred yards to Charlotte Street Car Park.

I had left the Healey on the top floor. My mobile rang from inside the glove compartment as I slid behind the steering wheel. It was one of those ‘movie moments’. Like when a character switches on the car radio, immediately to have the music interrupted and a news announcer tell him something the plot badly needs to know.

The call was from Trinity Road CID. Detective Sergeant George Hood. I had known him a couple of years. He was the first-choice hound dog of an old friend of mine, still on the force – Superintendent Harvey Butler.

“How are you today Jack?”

“I’m alright.”

“That’s good,” he said.

What he meant was, ‘at least that bit is; the next bit is likely to be less jolly’.

“We want to talk with you about Philip Soames,” Hood said.

Philip Soames… A psychiatrist with a private practise in Clifton. Recently a client of mine. Filed under S in the middle drawer of my office filing cabinet.

“Talk away.” I said.

“No, not right now,” Hood said. “Are you busy later?”

“I hope to be.”

I pictured him grinning down the phone line

“Well… It’s not our policy to keep the private sector away from paid work. But we would be obliged if you could get round here tomorrow. At noon.”

The request was certain to prove a lot less routine than he was making it sound.

“Okay,” I said.

He thanked me and rang off. Distracted for a moment or two, I listened to the buzz on the line. Then I closed the call and dropped the mobile onto the passenger seat.

As Scarlett said – tomorrow is another day.

The Healey’s engine fired up as soon as I turned the ignition key. It settled into a rhythm and began to rumble softly. I listened to it for a while, then reached up and unclipped the front of the soft top, raised it and pushed it back.

A 1967, classic 3 litre, is an indulgence I know. Expensive to run. I can sit in traffic and watch the fuel gauge needle go down. No breeze to service either, but for that, there is Mr Earl – twenty-five percent Jamaican and seventy-five percent south Bristol. A man of few words, laid back and totally unfazed by the complexities of the world around him, he lives above his workshop in a cul-de-sac in Southville. His son Hamilton works for him, his wife Alesha runs the local soul food café. A more well-adjusted bunch you could never hope to meet. Each time he presents me a bill, Mr Earl shakes his head sadly. But I’ve had the car fifteen years. Yes, the Healey pumps out more CO2 than my neighbour’s wife’s Nissan. But he flies to Toulouse twice a month. My personal carbon footprint is miniscule by comparison.

I drove out of the car park.

*  *  *

Saint Edward’s Church is a tiny place, in a quiet part of Redland. Where Emily and I were married and where her memorial stone is placed. Chrissie and I stood side by side, in the corner of the churchyard and looked down at the stone.

In memory of Emily 1969 to 2015.

Chrissie reached out with her right hand, brushed my hip, found the fingers of my left hand and squeezed gently.

“I can’t believe twelve months can go by so quickly,” she said.

It was a serene, mid-September day, with a soft breeze barely stirring the branches of the old yew tree behind us. Summer was stretching on, refusing to let go. So were the memories. Emily had loved, cared for and looked after all of us; mending and healing and resolutely not regretting.

Chrissie let go of my hand and reached into the inside pocket of her jacket. She produced a small photograph, set in a silver frame.

“This is the picture of Mum you always liked.”

Emily smiled at us from inside the frame. A photograph taken eighteen months ago in the Cotswolds, before the cancer took its final unbeatable grip. No sign of pain on her face. A little gaunt perhaps, but still beautiful, and at 42, far too young to die. Twelve months on, the grieving had distilled into remembrance. And Emily’s legacy was substantial. Her continued presence in most things I did most days, was positive and welcome. Chrissie and I were closer than we had been in a long time. Adam and I were good friends. A relationship which had evolved and matured, in spite of my best efforts to strangle it at birth.

Adam is a senior reporter on the Bristol Evening Post. Eleven years older than Chrissie. When she met him two years ago, I decided it was a relationship to be discouraged. She said Adam was the best thing that had happened to her. Emily tried to keep the peace between us and we should have taken note. What began with an argument, was followed by a series of rows, ending in a big fight. Furious with me, Chrissie left home and moved in with Adam. I raged nonsensically in return. And in all of this, Emily was the loser. Neither Chrissie nor I recognised that. Emily watched over us, counselled us, but couldn’t knock any sense into us. Driven by our own concerns, we failed to see who was really hurting the most. Chrissie leaving home was a simple disagreement. Emily’s cancer which came swiftly afterwards, was a matter of life and death. It took something so deadly to bring us back together. We had time to prepare, eight months to be a family again. At the eleventh hour we did the best we could, but time ran out. Through all the nonsense and eventually the grief, Adam was at Chrissie’s side. He kept her grounded and together.

In silence, we looked at the photograph for some time, then Chrissie put it back into her pocket and we stepped away from the stone.

“I think Adam means to propose,” she said, as we were about to leave the churchyard.

I pulled open one of the big, cast-iron gates and stared at her.

“Does he?”

“He’s working up to it.”

“And do you feel disposed to accept?”

“Somewhere down the line, yes, of course. But I’ve one more year at uni. Then debts to settle and a job to sort out. Or maybe a post grad year. In which case we’re looking at a hell of a long engagement.”

“You’ll still only be 23.”

“You married Mum when you were 23”

“And Auntie Joyce said I was far too young.”

“Was she right?”

Auntie Joyce is right about almost everything. But back then, she took to Emily instantly, loved her to pieces and put aside her misgivings. That was no surprise. Generous, big hearted and open to everyone with a problem to share, she and Uncle Sid had gathered up a distraught child and given him all the love in the world.

Suddenly, other memories were crowding in…

The day before I started primary school, my father came home with a new family car. A 1972 Ford Zodiac. I stood at his side, my point of view level with his waist. He, my mother and I, surveyed the gorgeous, chrome trimmed machine. The image was burned on to the back of my retina and has never been dislodged. Not even, when three days later, my father hit a patch of ice on the top of Mendip and the Zodiac side-slipped through a fence and down 100 feet onto the floor of a stone quarry. It burst into flames on impact. That day, I walked the few hundred yards from school to Auntie Joyce’s for tea. I was still there the next morning. Whereupon she said I wasn’t going to school that day and she had something to tell me.

I closed the church gate behind us.

“She called me yesterday,” I said. “Auntie Joyce.”

“Of course she did,” Chrissie said. “She wouldn’t forget.”

We walked to her car, a ten- year-old Honda Civic. She pointed the key fob at the front wing, waited for it to bleep, then spoke again.

“How long have they been in Suffolk? Three years?”

“Four… Uncle Sid is making things in his shed.”

“What things?”

“Metal things. He says he wants to move house. Needs more space he maintains.”

“Why?”

“To make bigger things I guess.”

Chrissie opened the driver’s door.

“Why doesn’t he just get a bigger shed?”

She got into the Civic. Closed the door, pressed a button to her right and the driver’s window slid down.

“What are you doing now?”

“Taking the rest of the day off. Come and have some tea.”

“I haven’t got time,” Chrissie said. “I have to pick up Sam. Call me.”

She started the engine, let in the clutch, found first gear and the Honda pulled away.

*  *  *

I live in a brick and stone Edwardian semi, with a curved bay window facing the street and three bedrooms upstairs. The only house Emily and I ever bought. Just before Chrissie was born. There is a small garden at the front. A more substantial garden at the back, leads to a gate into a lane which runs parallel to the street at the front. The garage sits at the end of the garden and opens directly into the lane.

I stowed the car away, walked across the lawn and let myself into the house through the back door. I made some tea and sat down on the living room sofa to drink it.

Out of work again.

Or to be more accurate, currently not being paid by anyone. The self-employed person always has work to do. The question is, whose money is he spending? Right now, indeed for the foreseeable future, I was spending my own.

The sun was shining and the lawn needed cutting. Seize the day.

I got to my feet, went up to the bedroom and changed into an old pair of jeans and my gardening shirt. I fished my gardening shoes out of the cupboard by the back door. My mobile rang from the hall.

“Where are you?” Adam asked.

“At home. Just about to cut the lawn.”

“Got anything on this evening?”

“Nothing more exciting than cutting the lawn.”

“I think I can help there,” he said. “Come for supper.”

“Going to be that good is it?”

“There’s something I want to talk to you about. Or rather, someone. You remember Philip Soames?”

I took a moment. Sat down on the chair by the phone table and stretched out my legs. Adam asked if I was still there.

“Yes,” I said. “What about him?”

“Tell you when you get here. Soon as you like.”

He disconnected. I stared across the hall. Pressed the call cancel button.

Philip Soames… Again…

Saved from cranking up the lawn mower, I de-dressed and re-dressed. Decided on a change of shirt and trousers, collected my jacket and car keys and left the house the way I had come in.

I managed to avoid the city centre, crossed the suspension bridge in light traffic, then turned west up the hill through Leigh Woods and on to the Clevedon road. A few minutes before 6 o’clock I pulled up outside Adam and Chrissie’s house on Dial Hill. As I reached for the doorbell, there was an explosion of barking from inside the hall. That could only be the force of nature that is Sam the Bearded Collie.

Indeed so. Chrissie opened the front door and in a whirlwind of noise, swirling hair and thrashing tail, Sam launched himself over the threshold. He reared upright, planted his front paws on my chest and we danced backwards – him Fred Astaire, me Ginger Rogers. I managed to get my hands either side of his neck and slow down the mad fox trot. Sam dropped on to all fours. I bellowed “Sit!” And he did, staring up at me, tongue hanging out, panting like an idling steam engine.

Chrissie was hanging on to the door jam, convulsed with laughter. Adam appeared at her side.

“I did tell you I was picking him up,” she said.

“Is he on holiday again?” I asked.

Chrissie pulled herself together and stepped on to the drive.

“Likely to become a permanent fixture,” she said. “Our friends with the Australian connection may be emigrating. They’re out there now, looking for a house. In which case, he’ll stay here, with us.”

She addressed the beast directly. “Isn’t that right Sam?”

Sam spun around, looked at Chrissie, threw back his head and barked in agreement.

“Come on,” she said.

Sam dipped his head. Looked back over his shoulder towards me, considering his options. I stood up as straight as I could and gave him my best severely disinterested look. He took that on board, reversed his point of view, then loped past Chrissie and back into the house.

“On the button,” she said.

“Sort of,” I said.

I followed Adam into the hall.

*  *  *

Chrissie had cooked linguini carbonara – bacon, peas, red peppers and basil in some kind of cream sauce. We paid serious attention to the meal and conversation was minimal. At one point, Sam padded into the dining room. He looked around, decided there was no mileage in his ‘Hey, here I am’ routine, lay down in the doorway and dozed off. Adam made the coffee. Chrissie poured a cup for herself and took it into the living room. As she stepped over Sam, he woke up, got to his feet and followed her. Adam passed a cup across the table to me and turned to the subject of Philip Soames. He had a minor bombshell to drop.

“Your ex-client, Philip Soames, is dead.”

I stared at him. He went on.

“Dragged out of the mud in the Severn Estuary yesterday morning. He was discovered by the man who checks the speed camera on the approach to the second crossing. You remember, it’s up on the gantry above the toll barriers.”

“He saw the body from there?”

“Mr Conway is a bird watcher. Takes his binoculars with him every time he goes up to the camera. Apparently, he’s the Westcountry’s foremost expert on migratory wading birds.”

Adam stood up, moved to the sideboard and picked up an envelope folder. He opened it, took out a page of A4 and passed it to me.

“My copy for tomorrow. Best I could do. The police press statement was a little thin.”

I read it… Mr Conway had climbed the gantry to collect the camera data at 8 am. Low tide. His binoculars had revealed a man’s body, mid channel, partly submerged in the mud. He had been weighted down. The police statement posited that the deceased had been transported out into the channel at high tide, around 2 am, and dropped into the water… I looked back at Adam.

“The wrong thing to do,” I said.

He nodded. “You noticed.”

Presumably those who had accomplished this, never intended that Philip Soames should re-appear. Not with weights strapped to his chest and his pockets full of gravel. That being the case, the enterprise was a huge mistake. The perpetrators had reckoned without the second highest tidal range in the world; something around fourteen and a half metres. Even though there are two miles between the English and the Welsh at that point in the channel, at low tide you could walk across – presuming you had mega waders and didn’t get sucked into the mud.

Out in the hall, Sam sloped past the dining room door on his way to the kitchen. Adam looked at me, raised his arms and turned his palms outward.

“So our rationalisation of the situation would be?…”

“Those who did this deed were extremely foolish.”

“Or extremely ill informed.”

“Which leads to the most obvious assumption. They weren’t local. Any Westcountry person in the removals business would know about the estuary tides. No one would dump a body any closer than five miles out at sea.”

“That was my conclusion too.”

“You can’t let this theory loose on your readers,” I said.

“Not without getting into trouble. But in the meantime, the piece needs some colour. I was hoping you could provide a little of that.”

I looked at the A4 page again.

“There are no details of how the police managed to identify him.”

“Not released.”

A further couple of seconds consideration was gate-crashed by the rattle of a choke chain, followed by extreme barking from the hall.

Chrissie yelled out, “We’re going for our evening stroll.”

There was a lot more barking and panting and squeaking, followed by the sound of the front door opening and closing, and then silence.

Adam linked his fingers, put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair.

“So why would Philip Soames, eminent Bristol psychiatrist, incur the wrath of a bunch of out-of-town enforcers?” Then he grinned. “Surely not because he was once a client of yours.”

“Is there any burgundy left?”

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