If Nicole Carrow was being absolutely honest with herself, her most substantial reason for believing Thomas McInnes was innocent was that he had made her a nice cup of tea. She hadn’t been a lawyer long, but she still suspected she might need more than that in court. Her two weeks experiencing the practical application of Scots Law had demonstrated a few divergences from its more familiar English cousin, but she’d yet to find precedent for a special defence of Refreshing Herbal Infusion.
Nicole had anticipated an uncomfortable breaking-in period in Glasgow – acclimatising herself to the city, the people and the notorious weather – and was prepared for feeling like a fish out of water in the job for a while. However, her vision of in-at-the-deep-end had nonetheless proven short-sighted: she’d naively assumed it would be a bit more than a fortnight before she was representing the accused in a crime that had shaken the world.
Obviously the contents of the oh-so-mysterious envelope had raised her hopes and stiffened her resolve, but the sober reality was that – as Mr Campbell had pointed out – they merely thickened the plot her client was embroiled in, and apart from briefly delighting a few conspiracy theorists, would ultimately be of more use to the prosecution.
The cold facts remained that McInnes, his son Paul, one Robert Hannah and one Cameron Scott had been apprehended fleeing the grounds of Craigurquhart House in Perthshire, that the Dutch media mogul Roland Voss, his wife Helene and their two bodyguards had been found murdered within, that when Paul McInnes was detained he was soaked in blood, and that an attempt had been made to open Voss’s bedroom safe.
McInnes and Hannah had been members of the “Robbin’ Hoods”, as the tabloids had tagged them, a gang responsible for a series of country-house break-ins over a short but prolific period during the mid-1980s, the name referring to their profession of pilfering from the rich, and conveniently ignoring their omission of the giving-to-the-poor part. A speculative early spin on the story was that their loathing of the wealthy must have become intensified during their embittered prison terms, and that – whether entirely for their own motives or willingly assisting someone else’s – they had meted out terrible revenge upon their perceived oppressors by murdering Voss, an international icon of arrogant, even decadent – and some would say thuggish – tycoonery. This seemed to be borne out by the police’s revelation that while the bodyguards had been shot (once each, middle of the forehead – very quick, very clean, very efficient), Voss and his wife had been tied up and their throats cut. It hadn’t taken a pathologist to work out that Helene had been murdered in front of Voss before they dispatched him too.
It had been a particularly cruel and vicious crime, undoubtedly evidencing a heartless brutality borne of violent, furious hatred. And there had been something sickeningly demonstrative about it, thrusting its depravity before the public and forcing them to look at it. It seemed to crave their disgust, to solicit their repulsion, while at the same time its very publicness sought to rob Voss of his aura by the posthumous humiliation of such a sordid and conspicuous death. Death often built legends, lent greater stature to mere men and granted them the immortality of public mythology. But murder could be insult through injury, a faultless disgrace in an irredeemable theft of dignity, which burnt the oil portrait of a proud man and replaced it in the public eye with a grainy police b/w of a withered corpse, helpless and bested by no worthy foe, but some – and by extension any – rogue whelp.
Nicole couldn’t help but feel a sense of d”j” vu as she remembered Robert Maxwell’s watery demise, the unreality, the impropriety of death paying a visit to one of the untouchable Three Rs: Rupert, Robert and Roland. Maxwell had seemed a figure so proverbially larger-than-life, a looming presence in and behind the media, and a figure she had, young in years, grown used to assuming would always be there. Someone the everyday realities of life wouldn’t touch, whose very irritatingness seemed to guarantee he would be around forever so you’d better get used to it, like the common cold or washing powder ads.
She remembered how the radio bulletin had sounded like a joke. Rich tycoons don’t fall off boats; if they do, they turn up later, safe and sound, then write a book about it and bore us all on chat shows, telling the world how the publicity – sorry – their lives flashed before them. Even while he was missing, those uncertain hours of anxious speculation and dismal journalism, she had assumed Maxwell would be found boomingly alive, having spent the whole time enjoying the amorous advances of a short-sighted minke whale. But no, the only whale they found was the dead one floating off the Tenerife coastline, and the colossus had indeed been felled.
And actually, after all, no, the world didn’t miss him.
Even before the pension-fund stories broke, he had started to become a smaller and smaller figure, just a dead businessman whose appetite for self-publicity had meant there was no-one left to blow his trumpet now he was gone. He wasn’t a giant after all, and history would make less and less of him with every passing day.
The famously ebullient financial health of Voss’s empire and his status in the UK as one of the Conservative Party’s favourite businessmen meant that the inevitable eulogising and necro-sycophancy by sufficiently important figures would safeguard his stature in certain circles for at least a while. However, the reality was that ultimately he would be remembered more for being murdered than for any of his achievements while alive. God, who could tell you two things about Lord Mountbatten, for instance?
It was like that joke about the shepherd who, in addition to his traditional duties, had built half the houses in his village, repaired two dozen boats and knocked out all-comers in unarmed combat, bemoaning the fact that he was never referred to as Hamish the builder, chandler or boxer. “I shag one sheep …”
Nicole remembered someone once saying that killing a man takes away all he is and all he might ever be, but some murders can also take a sizable swipe out of everything a man ever was, and this was one of them.
To say the country was shocked wasn’t even clearing your throat, never mind an understatement. In the six months since Dunblane, the people of Britain had become reaccustomed to a world where unimaginable atrocity took place only beyond the removes of oceans or fictions. A spring and summer dominated by images of confused bovines – inside and outside Downing Street – had provided a comfort blanket of mundanity as they reassimilated themselves into the very British realm of the unremarkable. Then this.
It had been a slow burn, starting from the first sketchy and seemingly incredible reports, breaking at the tail end of the BBC news, that police had found a number of bodies in a country mansion in Perthshire. Nicole remembered the panic in the reporter’s voice – perhaps contemplating the consequences if they got this one wrong – as he stated that “although it is as yet unconfirmed, we have reason to believe that the media magnate Roland Voss has been staying at Craigurquhart House with his wife Helene; so far the police have stated only that the bodies of three men and one woman have been discovered, and that they are treating all four deaths as murder”.
By the first ridiculous BONG! of ITN’s late-evening bulletin, the bodies were “believed to be those of Roland Voss, his wife Helene and two bodyguards”. Five minutes in, it was confirmed that Voss and his wife had been staying in the house. By twelve minutes, the police had told the programme’s “Scotland Correspondent” that the killings were “sickeningly brutal and sadistic”, but further details were not yet available (stay tuned!).
The nation was allowed to relax briefly while they learnt that their anuses need never again suffer the ravages of plain old bog roll now that the scientific breakthrough of the decade had delivered a quilted version; that two Eighties refugees with a coffee fixation still hadn’t shagged; and that nineteenth-century French peasants derived materialistic comfort from paying over the odds for a bland, gassy chemical passing itself off to the gullible as beer.
After the break, the day’s “other main stories” were shunted out as it emerged that the police were holding four men in connection with the deaths, and by the end of an extended programme, it was stated with bass-toned gravity that a terrorist motive “had not been ruled out”. Nicole had noticed that the situation was deemed to be so serious and the mood so sombre that Trevor didn’t even try to revive the viewers’ spirits with an amusing And Finally … clip. This meant the scheduled report from Wigan about a hamster who could play “Waltzing Matilda” by farting into a series of colour-coded test-tubes would presumably be held over until the next night, when the last story might be about a plane crash in Zambia which, despite claiming 230 lives, had pathetically failed to turn up one corpse holding a British passport and was therefore not important.
By the time the specially convened and unprecedented Sunday Newsnight went out, the cops were getting less reticent.
“Police initially thought that tonight’s tragic and bloody events might have been the result of a burglary gone wrong, or even that the killings were part of a contingency, but they are now saying that, given the profile of Mr Voss and his well-known links with the Conservative Party – together with the sheer ruthlessness of the killings – they have to consider all possibilities at this stage.”
Yes, Nicole had thought. Especially when the Prevention of Terrorism Act allows you to hold your suspects for six days without letting them talk to a lawyer.
“Although Roland Voss was best known in the UK for his newspaper and pay-TV interests,” the strainingly stern-faced reporter continued, “it should be remembered that his empire spans many countries, many businesses and many industries, including arms manufacture. As a result, Mr Voss had no shortage of enemies, and seemed sometimes to publicly revel in the fact, playing up to what he liked to call his `prizefighter image’. Indeed, you may recall that after the 1992 General Election, when his newspapers were accused of some very low blows in their campaign coverage, it was hinted by Labour sources that were they ever to win power, his would be one score they would not forget to settle. His words at that time were, famously, `If the British Labour Party was the most dangerous enemy I had to worry about, I’d sleep easier tonight. In fact, if it was in the top ten, I’d sleep easier tonight.”
“That is perhaps why the police are anxious not to jump to any conclusions regarding the motives behind tonight’s atrocities. As one police source told me, the fact that the bedroom safe appears to have been tampered with does not necessarily mean robbery was the principal objective, especially as at this stage it has not been established whether anything was in fact stolen.”
Eventually, out of facts and out of quotes, they moved on to reaction, which in most cases was blank disbelief. You could see it on the faces of the few establishment grandees who could bring themselves to be interviewed: System error. Does not compute.
Ordinary people got murdered. Poor people got murdered. Black people got murdered. Women got murdered. We don’t get murdered.
Occasionally one of us manages to off himself by mistake with the wife’s knickers over his head or gets found upside-down in a septic tank after a share crash, but we don’t get done in by the unwashed when we’re trying to enjoy a spot of hunting and fishing in the countryside. We’re safe from that sort of thing.
One by one they struggled to make sense of it, in a repetitive litany of incredulity, confusion and white-faced horror solicited by the noticeably unsettled anchorman, who was plainly wishing it wasn’t Peter Snow’s night off.
And as no-one could make sense of it, thoughts turned instead to retribution; the only way forward after such a senseless loss of precious human life was to … er … kill someone else.
“This is an outrage of unprecedented proportion,” blustered one ruddy-faced Tory backbencher – perhaps forgetting about an awful lot of dead Irish people, perhaps not – “and if there was ever a stronger argument for the return of the death penalty, then I can’t think of it.”
No, I’ll bet you can’t, Nicole had thought.
“… lack of the death penalty as a punitive sanction in a case like this makes a mockery of British justice,” said another apoplect, as one by one they hitched their agendas to the back of the bandwagon of indignation rolling out from Perthshire.
“… well documented that Roland Voss was a strong advocate of the death penalty and it would certainly be his wish that these men were made to pay that price for what they have done tonight …”
“… how long will we continue to listen to so-called liberal excuses over the death penalty as outrage follows outrage, atrocity follows atrocity, murder follows murder …”
And soundbite follows soundbite.
“… of course with the autumn party conference coming up soon in Blackpool, the annual calls for the return of hanging are bound to be all the louder, and all the more difficult to shout down.”
Ah yes. There was the rub. Need something to resuscitate the party faithful at the last get-together before the election in the spring, if they can hang on that long.
By the time the first-edition front pages were flipped briefly before the camera at the end of the show, the mood of the lynch-mob had reached hysteria.
“HANG THESE BASTARDS NOW!” led Voss’s own flagship tabloid, one frothing voice amidst a baying clamour.
“SCUM FOUR MUST DIE!” screamed the next.
“FOUR LIVES FOR FOUR LIVES,” demanded yet another, with a strap elaborating: “VOSS MURDERS: Nation calls for return of hanging”.
It struck Nicole that The Nation must have called the paper directly, given the short time between the story breaking and its going to press, but who could say. The Nation had clearly made up its mind, and it would be a brave or foolish person who stood before it and argued the contrary.
“God help whatever poor bastard ends up defending that lot,” she had muttered to herself as she switched the TV off, before taking her empty cornflakes bowl into the kitchen then going to bed.
Excerpted from Country of the Blind
Copyright ” 1997 by Christopher Brookmyre. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.