𝘣𝘺 𝘔𝘢𝘳𝘬 𝘒𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘦
Two envelopes lay on the sisal mat by the front door. The first contained a letter from Simon’s mother. Put your trust in God, she wrote, and you will find comfort. The second envelope bore the Police Scotland crown and thistle crest. Simon took it, unopened, into the kitchen and left it on the table as he set about making breakfast.
He read an old newspaper over tea and toast, ignored the envelope, then tore it open.
Your assistance is required with on-going enquiries. Please report to Chief Inspector Baillie, Edinburgh West Division.
This was followed by directions to the police station, but no explanation. Simon knew it had to be connected to the accident.
That started him going over the same what ifs. What if he hadn’t gone to the retirement party? What if he had reacted differently? He shouldn’t have gone. He shouldn’t have stayed. He shouldn’t have spoken to Westacott and Macgregor, and let them get to him. Shouldn’t, shouldn’t, shouldn’t… but he had.
He found little solace in his mother’s piety or her timid optimism or the well-intended advice from others. Don’t beat yourself up about it. It wasn’t your fault. You can’t change what happened. Life must go on.
Simon left his cup and plate in the sink. He closed his eyes, and breathed deeply, preparing himself for the trip to the police station. Stay calm, perfect calm, no need to panic. He read the summons one more time.
Rolling along Leith Walk, he ignored the stares of passers-by and watched their feet; the trainers, sandals and slip-ons. The summons niggled at his brain. What did the police want now? He answered all their questions when they came to see him in hospital. Cops in uniform, not a Chief Inspector. What more did they want? He had paid the price. Surely, he’d been punished enough.
He stopped at the top of Elder Street to catch his breath. On Princes Street, he pushed by the queue for the tram and passed the lichened statue of Thomas Guthrie. A beggar sat against the railings, hand outstretched, legs hidden in a grimy sleeping bag. Simon looked up at squat Edinburgh Castle, perched on its igneous rock. No time to dally, he crossed Lothian Road and over the arse-jarring cobbles of Rutland Square.
The desk sergeant sized him up as he entered the station, banging off the door frame. A difficult manoeuvre, and Simon was still getting used to his wheelchair.
“Are you looking for something?” the sergeant asked.
Simon gave his name, and mentioned the letter and Chief Inspector Baillie.
The sergeant sighed. “I suppose it’ll have to be a ground floor room.”
Simon followed him down a dark corridor. The police station seemed strangely quiet. He had expected a hive of activity, people coming and going. The sergeant led the way into a windowless room with a desk and filing cabinet, the grey walls covered in smudge marks.
“We won’t be needing this.” The sergeant lifted a chair from under the table.
A door banged shut somewhere in the corridor. Simon wanted to ask about the summons but couldn’t find the right words. The sergeant stopped on his way out and turned, a sneer twitching his lips.
“You better listen to what Inspector Baillie has to say. Don’t piss him about. Give him what he wants if you know what’s good for you.”
Simon rolled his chair closer to the table. What did the sergeant know? It didn’t matter. Stay calm, perfect calm, no need to panic. Stop overreacting, but he was hypersensitive since the accident, every impression magnified and filled with menace.
Images from the accident came back to him. Lights flashing on shards of glass, his head pressed against the yellow air bag, struggling to breathe, seeing the face of the paramedic and sensing her urgency. Then, the realisation of what had happened.
Simon felt Baillie’s presence. He stood in the doorway, a small man with narrow shoulders. He had a sallow creased face, tired brown eyes and a sharp widow’s peak. A moustache partially concealed his cleft lip. He wore a suit made to measure, hound’s-tooth, black on grey. His regulation policeman brogues were buffed and spotless.
“It must be visiting time.” Baillie checked his watch. “Did you have any problem finding your way?”
“No,” Simon answered.
Baillie shut the door. “I see you’ve brought your own wheels. How did you come by those?”
“A car accident.”
“An accident, you say. Terrible things accidents, and always avoidable. Don’t you agree?”
“In my experience it’s best to accept responsibility for your actions.”
Simon said nothing.
Baillie sat down. “You’ve met the sergeant?”
“You’ll probably have noticed he’s a nasty piece of work.”
“I know nothing about him.”
Baillie adjusted the cuffs of his jacket. “So what has you here today?”
Simon took his time before responding. “You sent me a summons, so you must want to see me.”
“That I did.” Baillie nodded. “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?”
Baillie fidgeted with a cigarette. He raised it to his damaged lips, hesitated, opened a drawer in the desk and flung it inside. “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. As far as he’s concerned, taxpayers’ hard-earned money is wasted on ramps and wider doorways. All those handicapped signs and preferential parking. The sergeant believes disabled people are an unnecessary burden.”
Baillie took a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. “There’s no point sugar-coating the truth, Simon. People are unsympathetic. The sergeant is an obnoxious boor but the general public is no better. They don’t like being reminded of human frailty.”
“You contacted me,” Simon said. “What was the purpose of your summons?”
“We’ll get to that, all in good time.” Baillie shifted in his seat. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me, anything you wish to divulge?” He smiled, a crooked, mocking smile. “You can tell me. I’m all ears.”
“I have nothing to tell you.”
Baillie opened the drawer and retrieved the cigarette. He held it between his index and middle fingers, and flipped it over to his ring finger. “You do know you’re expected to cooperate with the police. Maybe you need a little incentive. Grease the wheels, so to speak.”
Simon stared at the desk, which was covered in nicks and scratches.
“I can do more for you than you realise, Simon. I ask for little in return.”
They sat in silence. Baillie got up and paced the room. “We’re looking into the circumstances of your car crash.” He stopped pacing, and stood behind Simon. “It’s time to set those wheels in motion.”
Baillie placed his hands on the back of the wheelchair and rolled it backward and forward. Simon gripped the wheels to stop him. “There is of course the matter of the fatality.”
Baillie turned the wheelchair and bent down. He came closer, closer still. Simon smelt his sulphurous breath, the residual gases of his lunch, cabbage and oysters. Baillie didn’t move, didn’t speak. A clock ticked loudly. Baillie stepped back and returned to his desk. Simon’s heart raced, the blood fizzing in his veins.
“I have a question for you.”
Simon turned his wheelchair so he could see Baillie, who was examining his fingernails.
“Would you have left the scene of the crime if you could?”
The word crime hung in the air.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
Simon started to speak, and stopped. Whatever he said would sound wrong.
“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.” Baillie dabbed his brow with the 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 Simon’s knee. “Flagrant disregard of the rules and criminal recklessness. You snuffed out the life of a husband and father. A pillar of society and dedicated schoolteacher. A regular contributor to charities, keen gardener and enthusiastic golfer. He’ll 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 went back to his desk and took a folder from the drawer. “I see you’ve quite a collection of speeding tickets. Throw in evidence of intoxication and it’s not looking too good for you.”
“I only had one drink.”
“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 the sergeant’s speciality. It’s all here in signed statements. You should be more careful about the company you keep.”
Simon hadn’t gone to the retirement party to socialise as he had nothing in common with the people at work. Not wanting to appear unfriendly, he joined Westacott and Macgregor who were discussing the latest round of incentive payments and deciding how they would spend their bonuses.
“Rewards for mediocrity,” Simon had said, needled by their complacency.
“Sounds like a case of sour grapes,” Westacott remarked.
“You should put in for a transfer,” Macgregor piped up. “Then we’ll have some party.”
Driving home, Simon brooded over their jibes, his ears ringing with their snide laughter. The pedestrian appeared from nowhere. The car spun out of control, a frenzy of movement, Simon’s arms raised, impact unavoidable. Then, nothing until the paramedic’s face.
“The judge will convict and you’ll go down.” Baillie pressed his fingertips together. “Causing death by careless driving under the influence will get you fifteen years. Your fellow inmates may not be so understanding. Cowardly killers aren’t popular in prison.”
“It was an accident.”
“No Simon, that won’t do. That won’t do at all. A price must be paid. The scales have to balance.” Baillie wagged a finger, his face stern and disapproving. “We can’t put this down to chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Misfortune and tragedy just won’t cut it. How will that ease the widow’s pain? Bottom line, Simon−you must take responsibility.”
Baillie shuffled through paperwork in the folder. “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 rot 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.”
Simon looked down at his lifeless legs. He had paid a price but not the full amount.
“I hate to see you in this quandary.” Baillie shook his head. “Maybe the law needn’t be applied so blindly.” He leaned forward. “Wouldn’t it be good to correct your error and cancel this offence? Start again with a clean slate and the benefit of hindsight. 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.
“Why would you do this?”
“The sergeant is useful, but crude. He’s the one who’s put you in this bind, playing fast and loose with the lab report and extracting statements from witnesses. The sergeant is an abomination.” Baillie caressed his moustache. “You, on the other hand, understand nuance. You appreciate the quid pro quo.”
“What do you want from me?”
“We can get into all of that later. Let’s just say, a mutually beneficial collaboration. First, we need to get you back fighting fit.” Baillie raised a hand, fingers splayed. “Leave all that to me. We’ll have you out of that wheelchair in no time. Back on your feet and raring to go.”
Accident or not, it made no difference. If not the retirement party, it would be something else. There was no forgiveness. Giving in to Baillie meant relinquishing responsibility. No more blame or recrimination, no need to choose or decide. Putting his trust in Baillie meant salvation.
“In the meantime, we can have the sergeant look into the affairs of your colleagues, Westacott and Macgregor. I think you’ll agree they deserve their comeuppance.”
Simon nodded. “The scales have to balance.”
“Exactly. I knew you’d understand.” Baillie slapped the desk. “Justice must be served.” He took a page from the folder. “Some tedious administration, a contract for you to sign.” He moved the folder to one side, looked around and patted his pockets. “Now where’s there a pen when you need one.” A return to the breezy Baillie, a wee 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?”
Whatever Baillie asked, it couldn’t be such a high price to pay. Simon had little enough to offer and the Chief Inspector deserved payment.
“Here we are.”
Baillie held out a pen, and Simon signed the contract.
“Not even reading the small print. And to think the sergeant had me go over every line with him.”
It was done, Simon had committed himself 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. If anything, his family should be thanking you.”
Baillie put the page back in the folder. “All things considered, a satisfying outcome.” He clapped and rubbed his hands. “I’m sure when you saw my summons you never imagined things would turn out this well.” ✦