I was uneasy the minute I saw the Police Scotland crown and thistle crest on the envelope. I put the letter to one side, tried to ignore it and then tore it open. My assistance was required with on-going enquiries. I was to report to Chief Inspector Baillie, Edinburgh Division. There was no explanation but I knew it had to do with the accident.
That started me thinking again, the same what ifs. What if I hadn’t gone to the retirement party? What if I had reacted differently? I shouldn’t have gone, I shouldn’t have stayed, I shouldn’t have spoken to Westacott and Macgregor and let them get to me. Shouldn’t, shouldn’t, shouldn’t but I did. There was no one I could confide in and I was sick of hearing the same well-intended advice. Don’t beat yourself up about it, I was told. It wasn’t your fault. You can’t change what happened. Life must go on. It was easy to be sympathetic, easy to blithely say what’s done is done but I had to live with the consequences.
From Picardy Place, it was an uphill climb to the police station. I ignored the stares of passers-by and watched the passing feet, the trainers, sandals and slip-ons. The summons was gnawing at my brain. What did the police want now? I answered all their questions when they came to see me in the hospital. They were cops in uniform. This time it was a Chief Inspector. I had paid the price. Wasn’t that enough? Had I not been punished enough?
I stopped at the top of Elder Street to catch my breath. On to Princes Street, pushing by the queue for the tram, past the lichened statue of Thomas Guthrie and the beggar kneeling against the railings, ragged blankets arranged to hide his legs. On I went, squat Edinburgh Castle perched on my left, crossing Lothian Road and over the arse-jarring cobbles of Rutland Square.
The desk sergeant sized me up as I entered the station, banging off the door frame. It was a difficult manoeuvre and I was still getting used to my wheelchair.
“Are you looking for something?” The sergeant was offhand and bad tempered.
I gave my name and mentioned the letter and Chief Inspector Baillie.
“I suppose it’ll have to be a ground floor room.”
I followed him down a dark corridor. The police station was strangely quiet. I was expecting a hive of activity, people coming and going. He led me into a windowless room with a desk and a filing cabinet. The walls were patterned with smudge marks from dirty hands and greasy heads. The sergeant lifted a chair from under the table.
“We won’t be needing this.” He stopped on his way out. “You better listen to what Inspector Baillie has to say if you know what’s good for you. Don’t piss him about. Just give him what he wants.”
The sergeant hated me. I wasn’t imagining it. Had he been in the hospital? I couldn’t tell, all of that was a blur. Maybe I was overreacting. Since the accident, I was hypersensitive to every impression and suggestion. Scenes from the accident came back to me. The lights flashing on shards of glass, my head pressed against the yellow air bag, struggling to breathe, disoriented, seeing the face of the paramedic, sensing his urgency as the realisation of what happened flooded my brain.
I felt Baillie’s presence. He was standing in the doorway, a small man with narrow shoulders. He had a tanned creased face, tired brown eyes and a sharp widow’s peak. A moustache partially concealed his cleft lip. He was wearing a suit made to measure, hound’s-tooth, black on grey. His regulation policeman brogues were buffed and spotless.
He looked at his watch. “You’re late.”
“The letter didn’t specify a particular time.”
Baillie waved that away. “I see you’ve brought your own wheels. How did you come by those?”
“A car accident.”
“So, you were a terror on the road, something of a speed merchant?”
“But you have cause to regret past behaviour. In my experience it’s best to accept responsibility for your actions.”
I said nothing, wary of his implication.
Baillie sat down.
“You’ve met the sergeant?”
“You’ll probably have noticed he’s a nasty piece of work.”
I didn’t know what to make of that. Baillie adjusted the cuffs of his jacket.
“So what has you here today?”
He was playing with me, trying to throw me off my guard. I needed to be careful around him.
“You sent me a summons so you must want to see me.”
“That I did.” Baillie laughed. “Your surname is Scherrel, is that correct?”
“And your first name?”
“But not so simple.”
“That’s for others to judge.”
“Are you a zealot, a follower of lost causes?”
“I am not.”
“Good on you, Simon.”
Baillie was fidgeting with a cigarette. He raised it to his damaged lips, hesitated, opened a drawer in the desk and flung it inside. He leaned forward.
“What’s it like being dependent on others and requiring that wheelchair to get around? You must realise people are uncomfortable around you. Your disability upsets them. Take the sergeant, for instance; he has no time for the disabled. As far as he’s concerned, taxpayers’ hard-earned money is wasted on ramps and wider doorways. He can’t stand all those handicapped signs and preferential parking. The sergeant believes disabled people are an unnecessary burden.”
I was dumbfounded but Baillie took no notice.
“There’s no point sugar-coating the truth, Simon. People are unsympathetic. The sergeant is crass and insensitive but the general public is no better. They don’t like being reminded of human frailty.”
“Look, you contacted me. What was the purpose of your summons?”
“We’ll get to that, all in good time.”
Baillie sat back in his chair.
“Is there anything you’d like to tell me, anything you wish to divulge? Enough time has passed. Has anything occurred to you?” He smiled, a crooked, mocking smile. “You can tell me. I’m all ears.”
Baillie opened the drawer and retrieved the cigarette. Holding it between his index and middle fingers, he flipped it over to his ring finger.
“You do know you’re expected to cooperate with the police. Maybe you need a little incentive. A greasing of the wheels, so to speak. What do you say?”
I stared at the desk, which was covered in nicks and scratches, and said nothing.
“I can do more for you than you realise, Simon. I ask for little in return.”
We sat in silence. Seconds, minutes passed. Baillie got up and paced the room.
“We’re looking into the circumstances of your car crash.”
He stood behind me, his hands on the back of my chair.
“It’s time to set the wheels in motion.”
He started rolling me forward and back. I shifted in my seat and grabbed the wheels to stop him.
“There is of course the matter of the fatality.”
Baillie turned my chair and bent down. He came closer, closer still, his face within an inch of mine. I felt his eyelashes against my cheek and smelt his sulphurous breath, the residual gases of his lunch, cabbage and oysters. He didn’t move, didn’t speak. Then, he stepped back and returned to his desk. My heart was racing, the blood fizzing in my veins. I had to stay calm.
“I have a question for you, Simon.”
I turned my chair so I could see him. He was examining his fingernails.
“Would you have left the scene of the crime if you could?”
The word “crime” hung in the air. Everything Baillie said, every gesture, was calculated.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
Whatever I said would sound wrong. How could it be a crime? It was an accident. Better to say nothing, give nothing away.
“I can’t begin to imagine your guilt. How often is your peace of mind shattered, knowing you caused the death of an innocent man? It must be agony, that moment of piercing recall. Your physical condition does not make an iota of difference. It will not lessen the sting of your conscience. If you think your handicap is a form of penance, you can think again. Penance is a sham. There is no forgiveness, not for what you’ve done.”
Baillie stood and moved to the side of his desk. He bent one leg, grabbed his ankle and flexed his thigh muscles. “It’s good to ease those kinks.” He jumped into position with legs spread wide and hands touching overhead, returning to feet together and arms at his sides. “Jumping Jacks, best way to keep the ticker in good shape.” He switched to squats and lunges.
“What is it you want?”
“It’s a question of balance, Simon. A matter of appreciating the equilibrium. If you take from one pan of the scale, an equivalence must be removed from the other to appease Lady Justice.” He dabbed his brow with a handkerchief. “It’s my job to uphold the law and see that those who break it get what’s due them.”
He hunkered down and placed a hand on my knee.
“Flagrant disregard of the rules and criminal recklessness. You snuffed out the life of a conscientious husband and father. A pillar of society and dedicated schoolteacher. A regular contributor to charities, keen gardener and enthusiastic golfer. He will never swing a six iron again or give his son a piggy-back. Never feed the ducks with his daughter or play fetch with Rover. You’re responsible for his death, Simon. A devoted wife is now a widow and two innocent children are fatherless because of you.”
Baillie was back at his desk. He took a folder from the drawer.
“I see you’ve quite a collection of speeding tickets. Throw in evidence of alcohol consumption and it’s not looking too good for you.”
That wasn’t true, I had nothing to drink at the retirement party. I didn’t go there to socialise, I never socialised with the people at work.
“I wasn’t drinking.”
“That’s not what it says in the lab report; blood alcohol way above the legal limit. What’s more, it’s not what your colleagues told the sergeant. Getting the right answer to questions is one of the sergeant’s specialities. It’s all here, signed statements. You should be more careful about the company you keep.”
The retirement party had been unbearable. Standing around, pretending not to be self-conscious, I ended up talking to Westacott and Macgregor about work because it was all we had in common. Trading banal chatter about the latest round of incentive payments. “Rewards for mediocrity,” I said, needled by their complacency. “You’re too cynical,” Westacott remarked. “You should put in for early retirement,” Macgregor piped up. “Then we’ll have some party.” My ears were ringing with their snide laughter when I left. Driving home, brooding over their jibes, the pedestrian appeared from nowhere. The car spun out of control, a frenzy of movement, panic, my arms raised, knowing the impact was coming and then nothing until the paramedic’s face.
“The judge will convict you and you will go down. Causing death by careless driving under the influence will get you fifteen years. Your fellow inmates may not be so understanding. Cowardly killers are not popular in prison.”
“It was an accident. There was nothing I could do to avoid it.”
Baillie shook his head. “No Simon, that won’t do. That won’t do at all. A price must be paid. The scales have to balance.”
Gone was the fake geniality, Baillie was stern and disapproving.
“We can’t put this down to chance, bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Misfortune and tragedy just won’t cut it. How will it ease the widow’s pain? I’m sure it’s not what the husband wanted. It’s too arbitrary, too haphazard. Bottom line, Simon, you have to take responsibility.”
He shuffled through the paperwork in the folder and sighed.
“What are we left with? A car crash, a corpse and a cripple. Where’s the good in that? While our teacher rots in his grave, you’ll be rotting in prison. Locked away, no end of time to dwell on your misery, trapped in your wheelchair, no escape from the constant torment of your conscience.”
I looked down at my lifeless legs. I had paid a price but not the full amount.
“I hate to see you in this quandary, Simon. The law need not be applied blindly. Wouldn’t it be good to correct your error and cancel this offence? We could have you out of that wheelchair in no time. Back on your feet, start again with a clean slate. What do you say?”
“How’s that possible?”
“Minor jiggery-pokery. A wee sleight of hand, nothing too difficult.”
Baillie sat in judgement, a saturnine figure on his throne, watching me through narrowed eyes. I knew who he was and what he was. There was no need for horns or a tail. Baillie was an implacable power. I was nothing. It all depended on him, whether he had a need for me.
“Why would you do this?”
He took his time, caressing his moustache.
“The sergeant is not fit for purpose. He’s too limited, too crude. The man is an abomination. I can’t work with him. You, on the other hand, understand nuance. You appreciate the quid pro quo.”
“What do you want from me?”
“First off, I want you to kill the sergeant. He’s the one who has put you in this bind, falsifying the lab report and extracting false statements from witnesses. The world will be a better place without the likes of him. You’ve killed once, there’s no reason why you can’t do it again.”
The car crash had been an accident but it made no difference. There was no forgiveness. Giving in to Baillie meant relinquishing responsibility. No more blame or recrimination, no more need to choose or decide.
“Once the sergeant is out of the way, we can turn our attention to your colleagues, Westacott and Macgregor. I think you’ll agree they deserve their comeuppance.”
Baillie was right, justice must be served and the scales balanced. I had been betrayed and victimised. Baillie was my only hope, my salvation.
“Do you have something for me to sign?”
“I have it here.” He took a page from the folder. “Now where’s there a pen when you need one.” We were back to the breezy Baillie, a tidy man with a widow’s peak in a bespoke suit. He started rooting in the drawer. “I was using one not long ago. Where did I put it?”
What Baillie was asking was not such a high price to pay. What was a soul worth? It was a scrap of nothing.
“Here we are.” Baillie handed me a pen.
I signed the contract.
“Not even reading the small print.” Baillie feigned surprise. “And to think that moronic sergeant had me go over every line with him.”
It was done, I had committed myself to Baillie. There was no sense in needless suffering, in the sham of penance.
“As for the teacher you ran over, don’t worry your head about him. He was an abusive, controlling hypocrite. His family should be thanking you.”
Baillie put the page back in the folder and started fiddling with the cigarette.
“You and me, Simon, we’ll make a good team. I’m looking forward to our collaboration.”
He was in great form now, barely able to contain his delight.
“It’s for the best, Simon. I’m sure when you saw my summons you didn’t think things would turn out this well.”
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