DCI Magee sat in an interview room busying himself with the contents of a file that had been faxed from a police station in Arnos Grove during the night. He was not in a good mood. Being stuck in a dingy office with no window, on a bright sunny morning, was not his preferred choice of weekend activity. ‘This report is particularly damning,’ he murmured to DS Kelly. ‘It says Mansell was a bit of a tearaway when he was a young lad.’
DS Kelly took the report and began reading the front page in silence. After the first paragraph, she gave a response. ‘That doesn’t make him a murderer though does it, sir?’
‘No, it doesn’t. But it seems he met up with Nick Price at an early stage.’
DS Kelly looked up. ‘You think the two are involved somehow? I didn’t think SOCO had come up with anything yet?’
‘They haven’t. No yet anyway,. As far as I know.’ Magee sat back and shrugged. ‘And as our good Dr Jenkins said last night, the killer would probably have been covered in blood. Mansell wasn’t. However, he was there and may have had the opportunity to clean himself up afterwards.’
‘But you think Nick Price was involved, nevertheless?’
‘Anything’s possible, Melissa. The only thing we’ve got to go on at the moment is that Susan Conners knows Nick Price and he, in turn, knows Paul Mansell. All three were there last night, and we’ve no evidence to suggest anyone else was. So, maybe there’s something going on between the three of them.’
‘I really don’t know, Melissa. Not yet anyway. A few obvious motives spring to mind. Insurance, for instance. Then there’s love. That frequently leads to recriminations when broken hearts are involved. Hopefully, something may come to light when we start to dig into Todd Conners’ affairs.’
‘And in the meantime?’
‘In the meantime, Melissa, we’ll just have to bait Mansell, push him a bit. There’s certainly enough ammunition in this file to get him hot under the collar. With luck, he’ll snap under pressure.’
‘It says here he got let off with a warning for . . .’ DS Kelly put the file down as the door opened and Paul Mansell was led in, restrained by handcuffs.
Magee gestured towards the chair on the other side of the table. ‘Sit down, Mansell.’ He turned to the escorting officer and said, ‘Take the cuffs off him, please.’
‘Sure that’s wise, sir?’
‘Quite sure, thanks.’
Paul Mansell sat down and faced his two inquisitors with a look of trepidation in his eyes. ‘Are you going to charge me with murder, Chief Inspector?’
‘We'll come to that matter in a minute, Mansell. First, I thought we'd just have a quiet chat. You see, I have your file here, from Arnos Grove. I'm sure you know what's in it.’ Magee flicked briefly through the large pile of papers and gave Mansell a wry smile.
‘Christ, that’s ancient stuff. I was young then. A very different person to who I am now.’
Magee cast his eyes down to the dossier and read out, ‘Petty theft, vandalism, expulsion from school for violence, social service reports. Quite a hard case, weren't you? And still are, judging by last night’s little drama.’
Paul Mansell bowed his head. ‘You’ve got me wrong, Chief Inspector. I'm not a “hard case”, as you put it. Not any more. Not that I ever was before. I was just a mixed up kid. The reports must say that, surely? That part of my life is all in the past. I've been clean for nearly nine years now.’
‘Nine years, eh? Let me guess,’ Magee paused for effect as his upper lip curled, ‘your conversion to the path of righteousness occurred as a result of meeting Nick Price?’
‘Yes. Yes it was actually. And there's nothing funny about it. I met Nick when I was sixteen years old. He straightened me out. That's the god's honest truth.’
‘Really? Forgive me, Mansell, but I find that hard to swallow.’ Magee gave Mansell a stern look. ‘You see, I know the real Nick Price. He was giving me trouble a long, long time ago.’
‘Nick is not a villain, he's a decent guy. Yeah, of course he had a hard time in his youth. So what, who hasn’t? But he’s not like that now, he’s a family man. It’s people like you who continue to blight his name. It’s out of order.’
Magee gave a snort of derision. ‘You think so? I hope you won't be calling Price as a character witness, it won’t make you any friends around here.’
‘And why would I need a character witness? You haven’t charged me with anything yet.’
‘No, I haven’t, have I? So, let’s keep this conversation civil. Okay?’
‘Good. Now then, to other matters. Last night, for instance. What were you doing outside that house in Tongdean Avenue? Be very precise about it, please.’
‘As I told one of your officers last night, I was working on a case. I do security consultancy and investigative work. I have a legitimate practice. I've been doing it for a couple of years now. And yes, before you ask, I do a fair amount of work for Nick. These last few days, however, I was working for a client named Cracknell. I was keeping his wife under surveillance, at the house next door.’
Magee sneered. ‘What for? What was your brief?’
‘I was supposed to be on the look out for strange young men. I guess Cracknell suspected his wife of having an affair. Maybe he wanted grounds for a divorce. That's not my concern. I just gather the evidence for the client.’
‘You were employed direct by this Mr Cracknell?’
‘Yes, I just said that.’
‘Did you ever meet him?’
‘No.’ Paul Mansell squirmed in his seat before adding, ‘He telephoned me and sent some cash in advance.’
The body language had not gone unnoticed by Magee. ‘How were you to contact him should anything arise?’
‘I wasn't to. He said he would phone back after a week. I didn't care. It was his money after all.’
‘So you were tailing Mrs Cracknell constantly during the last few days then?’
‘No. Specific times only. Two to five o'clock in the afternoon and seven to eleven in the evening.’
Magee reflected momentarily on the significance of the times. ‘Why was that?’
‘Haven't a fucking clue,’ Paul Mansell spluttered. ‘Sorry. Look, I don't know. That's the god honest truth. Cracknell was in charge. Guess he knew when she was at it.’
‘So you have no written confirmation of your client's wishes?’
‘No, none. As I said, it was all done by phone.’
‘This is all rubbish, Mansell. You know the Conners don’t you?’
‘Who are the Conners?’
The reply seemed to have been delivered in a genuinely innocent tone, but Magee was having none of it. He gave a weak smiled as he said, ‘Nice try, Mansell. Mr Conners, the man who was murdered last night.’
‘I don’t know a Mr Conners. Honest!’
‘I swear I don’t!’
‘Nick Price seems to know the Conners. As, I believe, you do.’
Paul Mansell looked confused. ‘What?’
‘Oh, come on, Mansell. Todd and Susan Conners.’
A faint sign of recognition surfaced on Paul Mansell’s face.
‘Come on, Mansell,’ Magee persisted, ‘Don’t say you don’t know them. She called Nick Price last night to come over to her place, after her husband was found dead.’
‘Nick was there last night?’
‘As if you don’t know!’
‘Yes, Todd Conners.’
Paul Mansell looked sideways to the door, as if he was going to bolt.
‘Tell me, Mansell, were you and Nick Price in this together?’
‘I reckon Todd Conners and Nick Price were in business together. Did Nick Price order a hit?’
‘A hit? I don’t understand?’
‘For goodness sake, Mansell! You said yourself you’re in the “security business”. We all know what that means.’
‘If it’s the Todd I’m thinking about, he’s an old mate of Nick’s. They go back a long way. Why the hell would Nick want to order a hit on a friend?’
‘I really don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.’
‘He wouldn’t have done it.’
‘Really? Convince me. Tell me what you were actually doing there last night.’
‘I've told you the truth already, Chief Inspector! Why the hell would I lie? If I was involved in a hit, as you put it, why would I sit around all evening waiting for you lot to turn up? I'd just piss off as soon as the job was done, wouldn’t I?’
‘I have no idea, Mansell. That's what I want to know myself. Maybe you're just some sick sod playing games with us. Arsonists tend to hang around their fires to see the effect. Maybe you're inclined the same way.’ He tapped the file in front of him meaningfully, and added, ‘Maybe you wanted to draw attention to yourself, like you did when you were younger.’
‘Sorry to disappoint you, Chief Inspector,’ Paul Mansell hissed. ‘I enjoy my life now. I have no wish to draw police attention and I certainly have no desire to serve a life stretch. I was scared shitless last time I was in a cell. It made me think about what I was doing with my life. I vowed then to pack it in and be a good boy.’
‘Yes, talking about that, just how did you get off that last charge? That was pretty serious wasn't it? Caught in the act, according to these records.’
‘I was just lucky, I guess. Perhaps your colleagues heeded my plea for forgiveness. I don't know, I never really thought about it. At the time, I was just glad that particular nightmare was over with.’
‘That was when you first met Nick Price, you say?’
‘Yes. That's correct. Nick came to visit me whilst I was in the cells. I hadn't a clue who he was. I'd never seen him before. He just marched into the station with a lawyer and cleared the matter up.’
‘Just like that?’ Magee was incredulous. ‘How wonderful to have friends in high places. I notice that the owner of the store you trashed didn't press charges. That must have taken a fair bit of persuasion. Compensation? Or threats perhaps?’
‘I have no idea,’ Paul Mansell replied with an uncaring shrug.
‘And you just received a caution! Deary me! That must have cost Price a lot of money. Come on now, Mansell, there's more to this than you're letting on. Price must have paid a fortune in bribes, or sold his soul to the devil, to get you off with a caution. Why did he do it? I don't believe you were a stranger to him. Nick Price is no knight in shining armour, he doesn’t go around helping strangers in trouble. It couldn't possibly have been the first time he'd met you.’
‘Chief Inspector, I swear I'm not lying! I don't know anything about Nick bribing people to get me off that charge and I don't know how, or why, he did it. All I do know is that I've been very grateful to Nick ever since. He's a good friend; he treats me like his kid-brother. He lets me get away with murder . . .’
‘Really?’ Magee raised an eyebrow in DS Kelly’s direction.
Paul Mansell gave a sigh of despair. ‘It's just a saying, for god’s sake. Look, Nick just lets me do things other employees wouldn't be allowed to get away with. He treats me like close family. I meant nothing more by it. Okay?’
‘Okay. Have it your way. So, you're grateful to Nick Price, you owe him one maybe. Do anything for him, would you? Do his dirty work for him perhaps? Like taking care of Todd Conners?’
‘Nick doesn't murder his business associates. Nor his enemies either. He’s not like that.’
‘If I find out about a business deal between Nick Price and Todd Conners that went wrong, you're in trouble. You know that don't you, Mansell?’
‘Okay. Fine, anything you say. But I stand by what I said.’
‘Fine!’ Magee closed the dossier with a finality and pushed it aside. ‘So then, back to last night. What time did you arrive in Tongdean Avenue?’
‘Seven o'clock exactly. As instructed.’
‘And you sat watching the Cracknell’s house from your car until the police arrived?’
‘Yes. I'm glad the message has finally got through to you.’ Paul Mansell relaxed into a slouching position for a moment whilst Magee sat in silence. Suddenly he jerked forward and his eyes screwed up into a frown. He then threw his head back and laughed.
‘What’s the matter, Mansell?’
‘The murder was committed between eight and eight twenty, am I right?’
‘You tell me, Mansell. You were there, not me.’
‘My instructions. My non-written, non-provable instructions, as you'll no doubt remind me, were to leave my car at precisely eight o'clock and walk south down Tongdean Avenue and into the cul-de-sac that runs along the back of Cracknell’s rear garden. From there, I was to observe the bedroom. There's a clear view from that cul-de-sac, though I had my binoculars with me. And I was to return at precisely eight twenty.’
‘Add Peeping Tom to murder shall we?’ interjected DS Kelly with a chuckle. Both men glared at her.
‘Thank you, Melissa,’ Magee said through gritted teeth before returning his gaze to Paul Mansell. ‘Did you observe Mrs Cracknell? Throughout the time you were snooping around the back, that is?’
‘Yes I did. The curtains were open, despite it getting dark. God knows why. She was wandering around, getting her kids ready for bed, brushing her daughter’s hair, that sort of thing. I could make out a television glaring in the corner of one of the rooms. She was there the whole time until I left at eight twenty. I remember thinking it a waste of time as I wandered back to my car.’
Magee felt stumped. If Mansell was indeed telling the truth, then it was likely he’d just established an alibi. He met Mansell's stare, nodded his head and said, ‘Melissa, get your pen ready, please. Now Mansell, I want you to describe every one of Mrs Cracknell’s movements during those twenty minutes. You don't need me to tell that you your freedom may depend on this, do you?’
‘No, you don't. Okay, here goes.’ Paul Mansell closed his eyes and reeled off detail after detail, much of it seemingly petty and insignificant.
DS Kelly wrote rapidly, while Magee sat in silent contemplation and studied Mansell's face. He had watched guilty men lie smoothly before, even those that had given long detailed accounts of events that had never occurred. Here though, he knew that he was watching an innocent man fighting for his life. Yet something still troubled him. Something just didn't fit. Mansell was in it up to his neck; his gut instinct told him that, beyond question.
‘Coffee anyone?’ Magee asked as he rose to leave the room. He needed some fresh air.
‘Yes please, sir,’ DS Kelly replied, still writing.
Paul Mansell nodded his appreciation.
Magee left the room, feeling dejected. Five minutes later he re-entered the interview room with three cups of coffee and an assortment of sachets of sugar and dried cream.
‘Thank you,’ Paul Mansell said politely. ‘I think that’s it. I can't recall anything else.’
Damn those eyes, Magee thought. There was no guilt in them, not even a hint of nervousness. He sighed at the loss of another potential lead.
‘Okay, Melissa. Let’s wind this up.’ Magee stood to leave the room, turned to catch Paul Mansell’s eyes and said, ‘This had better check out, or I promise we’ll be meeting again.’