A little boy was found dead in Barnard Park.
The air smelled of gunpowder when Daniel emerged from Angel Tube and headed for Islington Police Station. It was midsummer and airless, the moon slipping unseen into a bright, troubled sky.
The day was gravid, ready to burst.
As he started up Liverpool Road, the thunder came and then thick drops of rain, reprimanding, chastening. He turned up his collar and ran past Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, dodging last-minute shoppers. Daniel was a runner and so he did not feel the strain in his chest or his legs, even when the rain fell heavier, soaking the shoulders and the back of his jacket, causing him to run faster, and faster.
Inside the police station, he shook the water from his hair and wiped his face with one hand. He brushed the water off his briefcase.
When he said his name, he steamed up the glass that separated him from the receptionist.
The duty officer, Sergeant Turner, was waiting for him and pressed a dry hand into his. In his office, Daniel took off his jacket and hung it over the back of the chair.
‘You got here quickly,’ Turner began.
Instinctively, Daniel slid his business card on to the sergeant’s desk. Daniel frequented police stations in London, but had not been to this one in Islington before.
‘Partner at Harvey, Hunter and Steele?’ the sergeant said, smiling.
‘I understand he’s a juvenile?’
‘Sebastian is eleven years old.’
The sergeant looked at Daniel, as if searching for a response in his face. Daniel had spent a lifetime perfecting reflection and knew that his dark brown eyes gave nothing away as he stared back at the detective.
Daniel was an experienced defender of juveniles: as a solicitor he had defended fifteen-year-olds accused of shooting fellow gang members, and several other teenagers who robbed for drugs. But never an actual child – never a little boy. In fact he had had very little contact with children at all. His own experience of being a child was his only reference point.
‘He’s not under arrest, is he?’ Daniel asked Turner.
‘Not at the moment, but there’s something not right. You’ll see for yourself. He knows exactly what happened to that little boy . . . I can tell he does. It wasn’t until after we called you that we found the mother. She arrived about twenty minutes ago. Mother says she was in all this time, but poorly, and only just got the messages. We’ve applied for a warrant to search the family home.’
Daniel watched as Turner’s reddish cheeks sagged in emphasis.
‘So he’s a suspect for the actual murder?’
‘You’re damn right he is.’
Daniel sighed and took a pad out of his briefcase. Chilling a little in his damp clothes, he took notes as the police officer briefly described the crime and the witnesses and details of the interview with the child so far.
Sebastian was being questioned in relation to the discovery of another child’s body. The little boy who had been found dead was called Ben Stokes. He appeared to have been beaten to death in a leafy corner of the adventure playground in Barnard Park on Sunday afternoon. A brick had been smashed against his face, fracturing his eye socket. This brick, and branches and leaves, had been used by the attacker to cover his broken face. His body had been hidden underneath the wooden play-house in the corner of the park, and it was here, on Monday morning, that he was found by one of the youth workers in charge of the adventure playground.
‘Ben’s mother reported him missing early Sunday evening,’ said Turner. ‘She said the boy had gone outside to ride his bike along the pavement of Richmond Crescent that afternoon. He wasn’t allowed to leave the crescent, but when she looked out to check, there was no sign of him.’
‘And you’ve taken this boy in for questioning because . . . ?’
‘After the body was found, we set up an incident van on the Barnsbury Road. A local man reported that he had seen two small boys fighting in Barnard Park. One of the boys matched Ben’s description. He said he shouted at the boys to stop, and the other child had smiled at him – said they were only playing. When we approached Ben’s mother with the description of the other boy, she named Sebastian Croll – your boy in there – who lives only a few doors down from the Stokeses’ house.
‘Sebastian was home alone in Richmond Crescent – or so we thought – when two officers stopped by at four o’clock this afternoon. Sebastian told the officers that his mother was out, that his father was overseas on business. We arranged an appropriate adult and took him down to the station just after that. It’s been obvious since we started that he’s hiding something – the social worker insisted that a solicitor be called.’
Daniel nodded and flipped his pad shut.
‘I’ll take you through,’ said Turner.
As he was led to the interview room, Daniel felt the familiar claustrophobia of police stations engulf him. The walls were papered with public authority notices about drink driving, drugs and domestic abuse. All the blinds were closed and dirty.
The interview room was windowless. The walls were painted pale green and completely blank. Straight ahead of him sat Sebastian. The police had taken the boy’s clothes and so he was dressed in a white paper suit, which crackled as he shifted in his chair. The oversized suit made the boy seem even smaller and more vulnerable – younger than eleven. He was strikingly beautiful, almost like a little girl, with a wide heart-shaped face, small red lips and large green eyes full of intelligence. His very pale skin was sprinkled with freckles over the nose. His hair was dark brown, and neatly cut. He smiled at Daniel, who smiled back. The child seemed so young that Daniel almost did not know how to speak to him and did his best to conceal his shock.
Sergeant Turner began the introductions. He was a tall man – even taller than Daniel – and seemed too large for the small room. He hunched as he introduced Daniel to Sebastian’s mother, Charlotte.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ said Charlotte. ‘We really appreciate it.’
Daniel nodded at Charlotte and then turned towards her son.
‘You must be Sebastian?’ he said, sitting down and opening his briefcase.
‘Yes, that’s right. You can call me Seb if you like.’
Daniel was relieved that the boy seemed so open.
‘All right, Seb. Pleased to meet you.’
‘Pleased to meet you too. You’re my solicitor, aren’t you?’
Sebastian grinned and Daniel raised an eyebrow. The boy would be his youngest client, yet his words made him seem more confident than teenagers he had defended. Sebastian’s searching green eyes and lilting, proper voice disarmed him. The mother’s jewellery seemed heavier than she was; the cut of her clothes expensive. The fine bones of her hand moved birdlike as she stroked Sebastian’s leg.
This little boy must be innocent, Daniel thought as he opened his folder.
Coffee and teas and chocolate digestives were brought in.
Sergeant Turner then left them alone, so that Daniel could meet privately with his young client and his mother.
‘Please may I have one?’ asked Sebastian, his clean slender fingers, so similar to his mother’s, hovering over the biscuits.
Daniel nodded, smiling at the boy’s politeness. He remembered being a child in trouble, navigating an adult world, and suddenly felt responsible for the boy. He slung his still-damp jacket on the back of the chair and loosened his tie.
Charlotte was combing her fingers through her hair. She paused to examine her manicured nails before clasping her hands. Daniel’s own mother had had very long nails and he paused for a moment, distracted by them.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, raising her heavily made-up eyelids and then lowering them again. ‘Will this take long? I must pop out to call Seb’s father, to let him know that you’re here. He’s in Hong Kong, but he asked for an update. I’m going to run home quickly in a minute. They said I could bring Seb some clothes before they start questioning again. I just can’t believe that they took all of his clothes. They even took a DNA sample – I mean I wasn’t even here . . . ’
The air was thick with the wet leather of the briefcase and the heavy musk of Charlotte’s perfume. Sebastian rubbed his hands together and sat up straight, as if strangely excited by Daniel’s presence. He took one of Daniel’s business cards from their slot in his folder and sat back in his seat, admiring it.
‘It’s a nice card. Are you a partner?’
‘So you’ll be able to get me off then?’
‘You’ve not been charged with anything. We’ll just have a quick chat to go over your story and then the police have some more questions for you.’
‘They think I hurt that boy, but I never.’
‘You mean, you didn’t,’ whispered Charlotte. ‘What have I told you about that?’
Daniel frowned in private acknowledgement of Charlotte’s out-of-place reproof.
‘OK, so do you want to tell me what did happen on Sunday afternoon?’ said Daniel. He took notes as the boy told his side of the story, about going out to play with his neighbour, Ben Stokes.
‘The Stokeses are just a few doors down,’ added Charlotte. ‘Now and again they’ll play together. Ben’s a nice little boy, quite bright, but he’s a little young for Sebastian.’
‘He’s only eight,’ said Sebastian, smiling at Daniel and nodding, looking him full in the eye. He put a hand over his mouth as if to suppress a laugh. ‘Or should I say he was eight. He’s dead now, isn’t he?’
Daniel made an effort not to start at Sebastian’s words.
‘Is that funny?’ Daniel asked. He glanced at Sebastian’s mother, but she was distracted, looking at her nails, as if she hadn’t heard. ‘Do you know what happened to him?’
Sebastian looked away. ‘I think somebody might have attacked him. Maybe a paedophile.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Well, they’ve been asking me all these questions. They think something’s happened to him since I saw him last and I suppose if he’s dead it must have been a paedophile or a serial killer or something like that . . . ’
Daniel frowned at the boy, but he seemed calm, considering Ben’s fate as if it were merely an intellectual question. Daniel pressed on, quizzing Sebastian on his actions before and after he returned home the day before. The boy was clear and consistent.
‘Fine,’ Daniel said. He felt as if the boy might trust him. He believed him. ‘Mrs Croll?’
‘Please call me Charlotte, I’ve never liked my married name.’
‘Fine, Charlotte. I just wanted to ask you a couple of things too, if that’s OK?’
Daniel could see that she had a spot of lipstick on her teeth and, as he turned to her, noticed the strain in her small frame. Despite the careful curls and the precise eyeliner, the skin around her eyes was tired. Her smile was an effort. If she knew about the lipstick on her teeth, Daniel thought, she would be mortified.
‘When the police found Sebastian today, he was home alone?’
‘No, I was at home, but asleep. I’d had a migraine and taken a couple of tablets for it. I was dead to the world.’
‘When Sebastian was taken away, according to the police report, he said that he didn’t know where you were.’
‘Oh, he’d just be kidding. He does that. He likes winding people up, you know.’
‘I was just winding them up,’ echoed Sebastian eagerly.
‘The police had no idea where you were; that was why they asked for a social worker . . . ’
‘Like I said,’ said Charlotte quietly, ‘I was having a lie-down.’
Daniel pressed his teeth together. He wondered what Charlotte was hiding. He felt surer of the boy than he did of his mother.
‘And on Sunday, when Sebastian came home, were you there?’
‘Yes, when he came in from playing with Ben I was in the house. I’m in all the time . . . ’
‘And you didn’t notice anything strange when Sebastian returned home?’
‘No, not in the slightest. He just came in and . . . watched some telly, I think.’
‘And what time did he come home?’
‘All right,’ Daniel said. ‘How do you feel, Seb? Can you go on with the police questioning for a little longer?’
Charlotte turned to Sebastian and put her arm around him.
‘Well, it is late. We’re very happy to help, but maybe we should leave it until tomorrow.’
‘I’ll ask,’ said Daniel. ‘I can tell them he needs rest, but they might not agree. And if they do allow it they might not give him bail.’
‘Bail? What on earth?’ said Charlotte.
‘I will request it, but it is unusual where there’s been a murder.’
‘Sebastian has nothing to do with this business,’ said Charlotte, the tendons in her neck straining as she raised her voice.
‘It’s all right. Wait here.’
It was nearly nine o’clock in the evening, but the police were intent on continuing the questioning. Charlotte ran back to Richmond Crescent for clothes for her son, and so Sebastian was able to change out of his white paper suit into blue jogging bottoms and a grey sweatshirt. He was led again to the interview room.
Sebastian sat beside Daniel, with his mother on the other side – at the end of the table. Sergeant Turner sat opposite Daniel. He was accompanied by a second police officer, the longfaced Inspector Black, who sat opposite Sebastian.
‘Sebastian, you do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention now something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence…’
Sebastian sniffed, looking up at Daniel, and pulled the cuffs of his sweatshirt over his hands as he listened to the formal words.
‘You all cosy now in your nice clean clothes?’ said the police officer. ‘You know why we took your clothes, don’t you, Seb?’
‘Yes, you want to check for forensic evidence.’
Sebastian’s words were measured, clear and cool.
‘That’s right. What kind of evidence do you think we’ll find?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘When we picked you up this afternoon, you had some spots on your trainers. The marks appeared to be blood, Seb. Can you explain what the marks were?’
‘I’m not sure. I might have cut myself when I was playing, I can’t remember. Or it might’ve been dirt . . . ’
Sergeant Turner cleared his throat.
‘Don’t you think you might remember if you’d cut yourself bad enough to leave blood spots on your shoes?’
‘It would all depend.’
‘So you think that it is blood on your shoes, but you believe the blood to be your own?’ continued the inspector, in a cigarette-ravaged voice.
‘No, I’ve no idea what the marks are. If I’m out playing, quite often I get a little dirty. I was just saying that if it is blood, then probably I cut myself playing.’
‘How would you have cut yourself?’
‘Maybe falling on a rock or jumping out of a tree. A branch could have scratched me.’
‘Were you doing a lot of jumping out of trees yesterday or today?’
‘No, I was mostly watching television.’
‘You didn’t go to school today?’
‘No, I wasn’t feeling very well in the morning. I had a sore tummy, so I stayed off.’
‘Did your teacher know you were off ill today?’
‘Well, what usually happens is that you take in a note the next time you go in . . . ’
‘If you were inside all day today, Sebastian, how did your trainers get like that? How did the blood get on to them?’ Sergeant Turner asked, leaning forward. Daniel could smell the stale coffee on his breath.
‘Could it have been blood from yesterday?’
‘We don’t know that it’s blood on his shoes, Sergeant. Maybe you could rephrase your question?’ said Daniel, raising one eyebrow at the police officer. He knew that they would try to trap the boy in this way.
Angrily, Turner said, ‘Were those the same shoes you were wearing on Sunday, Sebastian?’
‘Maybe. I might have put them back on again. I don’t remember. I have a lot of shoes. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.’
Daniel glanced at Sebastian and tried to remember being eleven years old. He remembered being shy to meet adults’ eyes. He remembered nettle stings and feeling badly dressed. He remembered anger. But Sebastian was confident and articulate. A spark in the boy’s eyes suggested he was enjoying being questioned, despite the detective’s harshness.
‘Yes, we shall. We’ll soon find out what the marks on your shoes are, and if it’s blood, exactly whose blood it is.’
‘Did you take some of Ben’s blood?’
The dead boy’s name sounded so primitive, so hallowed, in the windowless room, like a transient bubble, oily and colourful and floating before everyone. Daniel held his breath, but the bubble burst anyway.
‘We’ll know pretty soon whether any of his blood is on your shoes,’ Turner whispered.
‘When you’re dead,’ said Sebastian, his voice clear, quizzical, ‘does your blood still flow? Is it still a liquid? I thought it might turn solid or something.’
Daniel felt the hairs on his arms rise. He could see the eyes of the police officers narrowing at the macabre turn of the conversation. Daniel could sense what they were thinking, but he still believed in the boy. He recalled being judged by adults as a child and how unfair that judgement had been. Sebastian was obviously bright, and some part of Daniel understood his curious mind.
It was well after ten when the interview ended. Daniel felt sapped as he watched Sebastian being put to bed in his cell. Charlotte was leaning over the boy, stroking his hair.
‘I don’t want to sleep here,’ Sebastian said, turning to Daniel. ‘Can’t you make them let me go home?’
‘It’ll be OK, Seb,’ Daniel tried to reassure him. ‘You’re being very brave. They just need to get started on the questions early tomorrow. It’s as easy to sleep here. At least you’ll be safe.’
Sebastian looked up and smiled.
‘Will you go and see the body now?’ said Sebastian.
Daniel shook his head quickly. He hoped the police officer near the cells had not overheard. He reminded himself that children interpret the world differently to adults. Even the older juveniles he had defended had been impulsive in their speech and Daniel had had to counsel them to consider before they spoke or acted. He put on his jacket, shivering under its still-damp skin. With tight lips, he said goodbye to Charlotte and Sebastian and that he would see them in the morning.
When Daniel surfaced at Mile End Tube station, it was after eleven thirty and the summer sky was navy blue. The rain had stopped but the air still felt charged.
He took a deep breath and walked with his tie in his shirt pocket, his sleeves rolled up and his jacket hooked over one shoulder. Normally he would take the bus home: jump on the 339 if he could catch it, but tonight he walked straight down Grove Road, past the old-fashioned barber’s and the takeaways, past the Baptist church and pubs he never entered, and modern flats standing back from the road. When he saw Victoria Park ahead of him, he was nearly home.
The day felt heavy and he hoped that the boy would not be charged, that the forensic evidence would clear him. The system was hard enough on adults, let alone children. He needed to be alone now – time to think – and felt glad that his last girlfriend had moved out of his flat only two months before.
Inside, he took a beer from the fridge and sipped it as he opened his mail. At the bottom of the pile was a letter. It was written on pale blue notepaper with the address handwritten in ink. The rain had wet the letter and part of Daniel’s name and address had become blurred, yet he recognised the handwriting.
He took a deep swill of beer before he slipped his little finger inside the fold of the envelope and ripped.
This is a hard letter to write.
I’ve not been well, and I know now that I don’t have much
longer. I can’t be sure to have my strength later, so I want to
write to you now. I’ve asked the nurse to post this when it’s
my time. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the last bit, but
I’m not frightened about dying. I don’t want you to worry.
I wish I could see you one more time, is all. I wish you
were with me. I feel far from home, and far from you.
So many regrets and bless you, love, you are one of them –
if not the biggest regret that I have. I wish I’d done more for
you; I wish I’d fought harder.
I’ve said it to you often enough over the years, but know
that all I ever wanted was to protect you. I wanted you to be
free and happy and strong, and do you know what? – I think
Although I know it was wrong to do what I did, I think of
you now, working in London, and it brings me a strange
peace. I miss you, but that is my own selfishness. In my heart
I know that you are doing grand. I am fit to burst with pride at
the fact that you’re a lawyer, but I am not a bit surprised.
I have left you the farm, for what it’s worth. You could
probably buy the old place with a week’s wages, but maybe for
a time it was home to you. At the very least, I wish that.
I always knew you’d be successful. I just hope that you are
happy. Happiness is harder to achieve. I know that you
probably still don’t understand, but your happiness was all I
ever wished for. I love you. You are my son whether you like it
or not. Try not to hate me for what I did. Release me from
that and I will rest easy.
All my love,
He folded the letter and replaced it in its envelope. He finished his beer and stood for a moment with the back of his hand pressed to his lips. His fingers were trembling.