A Time to Confess - Della Millward
“In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.”
Alex Mason’s clear voice carried across the dry air of the cavern and Peter was glad there weren’t many people around to hear her. Sometime he thought the DI deserved her ice queen reputation.
She glanced at him. “What?”
Only the DI and a couple of SOCOs had been dragged from their beds this early in the day. Peter flicked through the images on the digital camera, re-checking he had what they needed.
The bodies of a man and a woman, frozen perpetually into a kneeling position, but now on their sides, lay head to head on the pale dusty floor of the mine between two great pillars of salt that looked pink beneath the artificial lights.
They were almost perfectly preserved, thanks to the salt air. The woman wore a dress that was probably cotton. She had her hair in some fancy pinned up style, which hadn’t been revealed until forensics had removed the sacking hood that covered her face. They both wore sacking hoods. The man had his hands clasped, as if in prayer.
“Their killer didn’t want to be seen,” Peter speculated.
“Mmm…” Alex paused, looking around the cavern which was a blocked off section of a much larger space, fifteen foot by twelve at most, “Or maybe their killer…or more likely killers…didn’t want to see their faces.”
They’d lain here for decades – you didn’t need any forensic knowledge to work that out. Peter was no fashion expert, but he’d have said their clothes were late forties, early fifties, and probably not English. The woman’s dark coat was well cut, too stylish for post-war England.
They might have stayed undiscovered for another hundred years had not a group of potholers doing a spot of unorthodox exploring come across them.
“Are you done?” Alex asked.
“Yeah.” Relieved to escape the smell of salt, Peter stepped outside and pulled his coat tighter about him as a gust of freezing Cheshire wind tugged at his collar. Something was niggling him about the way those bodies had been lying and the pattern of rocks that had been placed alongside them – something unsettling.
It wasn’t until later when he was going through the images that it struck him again. The rocks, laid out deliberately in an L shape mirrored the position of the bodies. The pattern was more apparent from above; for one of his shots he’d climbed onto a slab of rock near the newly uncovered entrance.
Also, it was less obvious close-up because the woman wasn’t in quite the same fixed position as the man. One of her arms was bent out to the side and she was slightly out of the circle. Suddenly it struck him why.
She hadn’t been dead when she’d been placed in position. She had moved out of formation and flung out an arm to support herself before collapsing once more.
How alone she must have felt in the salty, dead air of her tomb. He hoped it hadn’t taken her too long to die.
When he pointed out the pattern to Alex her eyes shadowed, and he knew she’d seen what he had and that she wasn’t as hardened as she sometimes appeared.
They were standing so close he could smell the coconut scent of her shampoo, and for a moment his senses swam and they weren’t in the incident room but on her lounge floor, the carpet grazing his naked back and her hair brushing his face as she bent to bite his top lip.
He blinked away the images. This was why you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure. Alex’s voice cut him back to the present.
“Yes, I do see,” she said. “If she had stayed where the killer had put her we’d have the shape of a perfect swastika.”
* * *
By ten a.m. on Saturday morning Peter was halfway across Axe Edge moor. It was one of his favourite hikes and he’d set out at daybreak. He felt less lonely amidst the solitude of the moors than he did in the bustle of the city, but the birds were the main attraction. He’d often seen merlin and buzzards here and he’d photographed a sparrowhawk once.
He’d caught it as it took off, a mouse in its talons – a fabulous, once-in-a lifetime shot.
Peter knew he was a rarity: Most of the guys he worked with fell into two camps – they were either into football and running and all things sporting, or they were into watching it, preferably on wide-screen at the pub accompanied by plenty of beer. The twitcher, complete with anorak and binoculars, was still a figure of fun.
Not that Peter was bothered about that; he’d stopped caring about other people’s judgments long ago. Photography had always been his passion as well as his job. When he’d applied for his position with Cheshire Police he’d mentioned it during his interview.
“I take pictures of birds.”
The HR guy had given him a lewd wink. “Is that with or without their clothes?”
And Peter, wary of putting the man right and risking embarrassing both of them and possibly jeopardising his chances of getting the job, had laughed and said, “What do you think?”
That had been fourteen years ago – but some of the older guys in the force still called him Porno Pete. If they’d known the truth they’d have given him a worse nickname.
Peter paused to catch his breath and watch the shadow of a cloud race across the heather. It was still biting cold for May.
To his disappointment there’d been no repeat dinners or even drinks at Alex’s house. She’d been too busy with the ‘mine bodies’ as they’d come to know them. The forensics confirmed they’d been entombed in the disused mine for more than seventy years. They’d both been shot in the back of the head. Why was trickier, although several theories abounded: Gangland execution being the favourite.
The woman’s last minutes still played on his mind. Surely no one deserved to die like that. He wondered if their killers would ever be caught. He supposed they might even be dead by now.
His theory that the bodies had been placed in the shape of a swastika had been discounted as improbable.
“The symbolism would have been wasted because they clearly weren’t meant to be found,” Alex said. “That mine was closed years ago. Whoever took them there knew the place was disused.”
One of the potholers had gone to the papers and details of ‘the gruesome discovery’ were on the front page for a week or so. But after that everyone lost interest.
As Peter paused to photograph a lapwing in flight he wondered if there were was any significance in his team’s suspicions that the bodies were French, but the bullets that had killed them had come from a British firearm. Why had a French couple been put to death beneath the Cheshire countryside?
* * *
A month after the mine bodies had been discovered a teenager reported an arson attempt on a barn in a field not far from the disused salt mine. Fortunately she’d managed to put out the fire herself before the fire crew arrived and discovered it was a bonfire that had got out of hand.
When Peter went into the station to drop off some reports and see if Alex fancied a drink on the way home from work, he caught the tail end of a conversation.
“I don’t think it was deliberate,” said the young PC who’d gone out to appease the teenager. “Some idiot was burning a load of old pamphlets to do with the war.”
Peter’s ears pricked up at the mention of the war and he went across. The PC held out the front page of an old newspaper with a swastika in one corner. “My dad collects old wartime stuff. I thought I’d show him this.”
Peter felt his heart thump hard for several beats. Not just at the sight of the swastika but at the headline below it, Defense de la France.
“It’s an odd coincidence,” he said to Alex, as he tried to persuade her to leave her paperwork and go for a drink with him.
“I quite agree.” She smiled at him. “OK. Why don’t we call by the farm on the way to the pub? We can check out what else they were burning. You can give me a lift if you like.”
A teenager with red streaks in her hair was grooming a horse tied to the gate at the entrance to the field.
“Bloody idiots starting fires,” she complained, when Alex introduced herself. “It frightened the life out of Sabre – he could have panicked and bolted, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was traumatised for life.”
The horse didn’t look traumatised. It blinked sleepy eyes and flicked its chestnut tail, but Alex, always sweet as candy around members of the public, sympathised with the girl before they trekked across to the scattered ashes.
The acrid smell of burnt grass tainted the air. A large area of the field was blackened and charred, as was one side of the barn. The wind had obviously been blowing in the wrong direction or it would never have happened.
“I’m amazed PC Ellis found that newspaper,” he remarked. “There’s no trace of anything else, is there?”
“I’ve cleared it away,” the teenager said, appearing behind them. “I had to or Sabre might have done himself an injury.”
“So what were they burning?” Alex asked conversationally.
“Old newspapers and pamphlets – most of it was in French so I don’t know what it was about. A few old clothes.”
“Where is it now?”
“In the boot of my car. I haven’t got round to dumping it.”
“Mind if we take a look?”
“Be my guest.”
Five minutes later they had transferred three black bin liners of stinking rubbish to Peter’s boot.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Alex turned the beam of her smile on him. “After all, this was your idea.”
Just before they left, Alex lowered her window. “Is this your field?”
“No, I rent it from Pierre Dubois, my grand uncle. I asked him if we could get a security camera – it’s so remote up here. Not that he was interested.”
“And where does Pierre live?”
“He owns The Elwych up in the village.” She tutted and went back to her horse.
Peter smiled at Alex. “The Elwych is a café opposite the church. I got you a bacon sandwich there once.”
“An excellent one if my memory serves me correctly. I might have to pay Pierre a visit.”
He nodded. “I don’t suppose you’re free on Saturday night? I’d like to cook you a meal.”
“I might have to bring over some paperwork. That wouldn’t be a problem, I presume?”
“No problem at all, ma’am.”
“So how did you get on with Pierre Dubois?” Peter asked Alex on Saturday, as they polished off a very nice beef wellington.
“He definitely knew more about that fire than he was letting on. And more interestingly, we’ve finally got an ID on the French couple. They were Francoise and Marcelle Chevalier. They and their two-year-old daughter, Angelique, went missing in 1947. They were visiting friends in Manchester but they never arrived. They just vanished into thin air.”
“I’ve been doing a spot of digging of my own,” Peter said, taking her hand and leading her to the settee. “I hope you don’t mind.”
He fired up his laptop and pulled up a screen of text and photos.
“What am I looking at?”
“The front pages of an old newspaper, Peaks and District News – I used to sell them the odd snapshot before I joined the police, but it folded a few years back, if you’ll excuse the pun. This is the one from June 94. Check out the picture.”
“Good grief.” Alex stared hard at the narrow face, with its thick bushy eyebrows. “That looks like Pierre Dubois.”
“It’s a special edition, commemorating fifty years of D-Day – and this is a piece about his father – he was in the French Resistance but he was caught, then tortured and killed by the Germans. The tragic thing was it was only a fortnight before D-Day. If he could have held on a bit longer he’d have been OK.”
“Interesting. So how did you happen across this?”
“I’m like a dog with a bone when I get something into my head. I had this theory that Pierre might have been burning old war stuff because he doesn’t want any connection with the past.”
“Perhaps it’s still painful for him,” she offered.
“It obviously wasn’t painful when he did this piece. He was happy to talk about it then. He describes his father as a hero and says, I quote, ‘If I ever find out who betrayed him I’d kill him with my bare hands.’”
“And you think it had something to do with the Chevaliers.” Alex sighed. “I know we’ve got a bit of leeway, but forensics are pretty definite about the timing. They were killed late 1948, early 49. Pierre would have been a child then.”
“I know. But there’s an elder brother. Jean-Paul – he’s still alive, he’s in his late eighties now. He’s in a nursing home on the other side of Elwych.”
“And you think Pierre’s brother killed those people.”
“It’s possible. I don’t think Pierre knew about it when he did this piece. I don’t think he’d have been quite so vocal if he’d known. There was a sister too apparently, Lillian Dubois, but she died a couple of years back.”
“I wonder how Pierre ended up with all the pamphlets and the clothes.”
“The Elwych café used to belong to his parents. His mother, Helen, was British – she moved back here after the war and – get this – her dad used to work at the salt mine.”
“How on earth did you find all this out?”
“I went in for a bacon sandwich. Not that I got one because they’d just run out of bacon.” He grinned at her. “The waitress was very apologetic. We had quite a good chat. She’s Pierre’s granddaughter.”
* * *
Jean Paul looked like his brother Alex observed when they arrived, but gaunter. He had the same pebble eyes and thin lips. He was sitting in a chair by the window staring out at the garden. Matron had warned them he had bouts of confusion.
“He has good days and bad days, depending on what mood he’s in. If you were to take him some mint imperials he might be more inclined to have a good day,” she added with a wink.
Peter offered him the bag and they sat opposite him on an uncomfortable Chesterfield.
“Merci, monsieur.” His hand shook as he took the mint, popped it in his mouth and begun to suck, a blissful expression on his sallow, papery face.
Alex leaned forward and with the same gentleness she might have used to question a child, she said, “Do you know why we’re here, Jean Paul?”
He fixed eyes on her that were very blue, and for a moment he didn’t respond. Then a slight smile crossed his face.
“You have found some bodies, oui? Pierre showed me the newspaper report.”
“You mean the bodies in the mine, Jean Paul?” Alex’s eyes met his steadily and Peter thought what a contradiction she could be. Ice queen to velvet gloved gentleness.
“Those people deserved to die. Whoever killed them did the right thing.” His voice quivered, but his eyes lit fleetingly with some ancient passion and his fingers shook anew.
“Did your mother kill them, Jean Paul?” Alex asked.
“I heard there is to be toad in the hole for dinner. Such an English dish, this toad in the hole, do you not think?”
“Why was it necessary to kill them?”
“Although, on reflection,” he pronounced it reflec-she-on. “I think I like better the roast beef – this is also a very English dish, oui?”
“Yes, it is. Did they betray your father? Was that why they deserved to die?”
“They beat him and they tortured him. We had heard –Mama and I – that they gouged out his eyes so he could never again read the papers he distributed. That was all he did – distribute papers to let people see the true story. And he had to die for this?”
A fly was trapped behind the net curtain of the window. Peter could hear its buzzing intensify as it bashed against the glass trying to escape its prison.
“She was pregnant, you know, when Papa was killed. She was in the resistance too, but it was too dangerous to stay in France. She had to go back to England. Bring up Pierre and I without Papa.” His eyes clouded. “And the traitors who betrayed him were her friends. They were resistors just like her.” He smiled, a strange wistful expression on his face. “They didn’t know she’d found out what they’d done. She invited them to visit us in England and they came.”
“How did she get them into the mine?”
“She drugged their food and then she stole Angelique, she was a babe in arms. They followed. They had to, or they’d never have seen their daughter again.”
“Then she shot them.”
The old man shifted in his chair and for a moment Peter wondered if he was about to hold out his matchstick arms for handcuffs. To say it was a time to confess and ease a conscience long overburdened. But all he did was reach across to the window and release the fly from its net curtain prison.
“I like roast chicken more these days, it is easier to chew.” He smiled again at Alex, almost tenderly, showing the gaps in his teeth. “It was I who made the swastika with the stones and their bodies. I did it just before we left the mine. I was young then and foolish. I wanted the people who found them to know they were no better than Nazis.”
“And would you sign a statement saying all of this?”
“I would sign a statement to say which I would like best: the roast dinner or the toad in the hole – or perhaps the stew? Sometimes Matron gives me the extra custard.”
Peter leant forward. “What you and your mother did was murder. You can’t just take the law into your own hands. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Mama is dead – at peace. I will not have her disturbed. And doubtless you have your – how you say…remote recorder? You make police record of an old man’s insane ramblings, oui?”
“He’s right. It wouldn’t stand up in court,” Alex said, as they left The Gables. “Isn’t it a beautiful view from up here?”
“Yes, it is.” He touched her arm as they stood next to the nursing home, which overlooked the wild beauty of the national park. The scent of roses drifted across the bowling-green smoothness of the lawns. “You don’t sound too disappointed that he and his brother will get off scot-free.”
“Jean Paul was nine years old at the time. An innocent. He couldn’t have prevented his mother from committing a terrible crime. And Pierre hasn’t done anything, except to try and dispose of the evidence, once he realised that’s what it was.”
“If he hadn’t done that we’d never have been alerted to them.”
“And we’d never have been able to match the sacking that was in the bonfire to the sacking that was around the victims’ heads,” Alex went on idly.
“And the clothes,” Peter felt excitement bubbling up in him. “There’s DNA?”
“I think I might find a matching sample.” She produced a small black comb from her pocket, several white hairs caught in its fine toothed end. “I must have picked it up by mistake. whoops!”
“So we do have them?”
She paused. “Angelique Chevalier was never heard of again.”
He stared at her bemused.
“You’re not the only one who’s a dab hand at digging around in the past. I couldn’t find a birth certificate for the Dubois sister. I suspect that’s because her real name was Angelique Chevalier and she was brought up as Pierre and Jean Paul’s sister, Lillian.” She let that sink in. “And guess who’s her granddaughter.”
“The teenager, up at the farm,” he breathed. “My God.”
“Think of the pain it would cause her if she knew the truth.” Alex’s face was soft. “Another innocent. Is it fair do you think to tell her?” She rested her head against his shoulder. “The reputation I have isn’t entirely deserved, Peter.”
In the fading light of his lounge he could feel her heartbeat quiet and steady against his as she continued softly, “Some secrets are best left untold.”