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When distinguished criminal lawyer Venetia Aldridge defends a young man for the brutal murder of his mother, she views the case as simply another opportunity to demonstrate her brilliance in the courtroom. But within weeks of the trial Aldridge is found dead at her desk, a bloodstained barrister’s wig on her head. And as Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard attempts to make sense of events, the murders continue, inexorably spiraling into fresh complexities of horror.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from A Certain Justice
A Certain Justice 1 Murderers do not usually give their victims notice. This is one death which, however terrible that last second of appalled realization, comes mercifully unburdened with anticipatory terror. When, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 11 September, Venetia Aldridge stood up to cross-examine the prosecution’s chief witness in the case of Regina v. Ashe, she had four weeks, four hours and fifty minutes left of life. After her death the many who had admired her and the few who had liked her, searching for a more personal response than the stock adjectives of horror and outrage, found themselves muttering that it would have pleased Venetia that her last case of murder had been tried at the Bailey, scene of her greatest triumphs, and in her favourite court.
But there was truth in the inanity.
Court Number One had laid its spell on her since she had first entered it as a pupil. She had always tried to discipline that part of her mind which she suspected could be seduced by tradition or history, yet she responded to this elegant woodpanelled theatre with an aesthetic satisfaction and a lifting of the spirit which was one of the keenest pleasures of her professional life. There was a rightness about the size and proportions, an appropriate dignity in the richly carved coat of arms above the dais, and the glittering seventeenth-century Sword of Justice suspended beneath it, an intriguing contrast between the witness box, canopied like a miniature pulpit, and the wide dock, in which the accused sat level-eyed with the judge. Like all places perfectly designed for their purpose with nothing wanting, nothing superfluous, it induced a sense of timeless calm, even the illusion that the passions of men were susceptible to order and control. Once from curiosity she had gone into the public gallery and had sat for a minute looking down at the empty court and it had seemed to her that only here, where the spectators sat close-packed, was the air knotted with decades of human terror, hope and despair. And now she was once more in the place where she belonged. She hadn’t expected the case to be heard in the Old Bailey’s most famous court or to be judged by a High Court Judge, but a previous trial had collapsed and the judge’s sittings and court allocation had been reorganized. It was a happy omen. She had lost in Court One, but the memories of defeats there were not bitter. More often she had won.
Today, as always in court, she reserved her gaze for the judge, the jury, the witnesses. She seldom conferred with her junior, spoke to Ashe’s solicitor seated in front of her or kept the court waiting even momentarily while she searched in her papers for a note. No defending counsel went into court better prepared. And she rarely glanced at her client, and then, when possible, without too obviously turning her head towards the dock. But his silent presence dominated her mind as she knew it did the court. Garry Ashe, aged twenty-one years and three months, accused of murdering his aunt, Mrs. Rita O’Keefe, by cutting her throat. One clean single slash, severing the vessels. And then the repeated frenzied stabs at the half-naked body. Often, particularly with a murder of great brutality, the accused seemed almost pathetically inadequate in his ordinariness, his air of hapless incompetence at variance with the violent dedication of the deed. But there was nothing ordinary about this accused. It seemed to Venetia that, without turning, she could remember every detail of his face.
He was dark, the eyes sombre under straight thick brows, the nose sharp and narrow, the mouth wide but thin-lipped, unyielding. The neck was long and very slender, giving the head the hieratic appearance of a bird of prey. He never fidgeted, indeed seldom moved, sitting very upright in the centre of the dock, flanked by the attendant officers. He seldom glanced at the jury in their box to his left. Only once, during the prosecution counsel’s opening speech, had she seen him look up at the public gallery, his gaze ranging along the rows with a slight frown of disgust, as if deploring the quality of the audience he had attracted, before turning his eyes again to rest them on the judge. But there was nothing tautly anxious about his stillness. Instead he gave the impression of a man accustomed to public exposure, a young princeling at a public entertainment, to be endured rather than enjoyed, attended by his lords. It was the jury, the usual miscellany of men and women assembled to judge him, who looked to Venetia like an oddly assorted group of miscreants herded into the box for sentence. Four of them, in open-necked shirts and jumpers, looked as if they were about to wash the car. In contrast, the accused was carefully dressed in a navy-blue striped suit with a shirt so dazzling that it looked like an advertisement for a washing powder. The suit was well pressed but poorly cut, the over-padded shoulders giving the vigorous young body some of the gangling tenuity of adolescence. It was a good choice, the suit hinting at a mixture of self-respect and vulnerability which she was hoping to exploit.
She had a respect, but no liking, for Rufus Matthews, who was prosecuting. The days of flamboyant eloquence in court were over and had in any case never been appropriate to the prosecution, but Rufus liked to win. He would make her fight for every point gained. Opening the prosecution case, he had recounted the facts with a brevity and an unemphatic clarity which left the impression that no eloquence was necessary to support a case so self-evidently true.
Garry Ashe had lived with his maternal aunt, Mrs. Rita O’Keefe, at 397 Westway for a year and eight months before her death. His childhood had been spent in care, during which he had been placed with eight foster parents between periods in children’s homes. He had lived in two London squats and had worked for a time in a bar in Ibiza before moving in with his aunt. The relationship between aunt and nephew could hardly be called normal. Mrs. O’Keefe was in the habit of entertaining a variety of men friends, and Garry was either compelled, or consented, to photograph his aunt and these various men engaged in the sexual act. Photographs which the accused had admitted taking would be shown in evidence.
On the night of the murder, Friday, 12 January, Mrs. O’Keefe and Garry were seen together from six o’clock to nine in the Duke of Clarence public house in Cosgrove Gardens, about one and a half miles from Westway. There was a quarrel and Garry left shortly after nine, saying that he was going home. His aunt, who was drinking heavily, stayed on. At about ten thirty the licensee refused to serve her any more and she was helped into a taxi by two of her friends. At that time she was drunk but by no means incapable. Her friends judged that she was able to get home on her own. The cab-driver deposited her at Number 397 and watched her enter through the side gate at about ten-forty-five.
At ten minutes past midnight a call was made to the police by Garry Ashe from his aunt’s house to say that he had returned from a walk to discover her body. When the police arrived at twelve-twenty they found Mrs. O’Keefe lying on a single divan in the front sitting-room, practically naked. Her throat had been cut and she had been slashed with a knife after death, a total of nine wounds. It was the opinion of the forensic pathologist who saw the body at twelve-forty that Mrs. O’Keefe had died very shortly after her return home. There was no evidence of a break-in, and nothing to suggest that she had been entertaining or expecting a visitor that night.
A smear of blood, later identified as Mrs. O’Keefe’s, had been found on the headpiece of the shower above the bath in the bathroom, and two spots of her blood on the stair carpet. A large kitchen knife had been discovered under the privet hedge of a front garden less than a hundred yards from 397 Westway. The knife, which had a distinctive triangular chip in the handle, had been identified both by the accused and by the cleaning woman as having come from the drawer in Mrs. O’Keefe’s kitchen. It had been cleaned of all fingerprints.
The defendant had told the police that he had not gone straight home from the public house, but had walked the streets behind Westway and down as far as Shepherd’s Bush before returning after midnight to discover his aunt’s body. The court would, however, hear evidence from the neighbour living next door that she had seen Garry Ashe leaving 397 Westway at eleven-fifteen on the night of the murder. It was the case for the Crown that Garry Ashe had, in fact, gone straight home from the Duke of Clarence public house, that he had waited for his aunt to return and that he had killed her with the kitchen knife, probably himself in a state of nakedness. He had then taken a shower, dressed and left the house at eleven-fifteen to walk the streets in an attempt to establish an alibi.
Rufus Matthews’s final words were almost perfunctory. If the jury were satisfied on the evidence put before them that Garry Ashe had murdered his aunt, it would be their duty to return a verdict of guilty. If, however, at the end of the case they were left with a reasonable doubt of his guilt, then the accused was entitled to be acquitted of the murder of Mrs. Rita O’Keefe.
The cross-examination of Stephen Wright, landlord of the Duke of Clarence, on the third day of the trial had presented Venetia with little difficulty and she had expected none. He had entered the witness box with the swagger of a man determined to show that he wasn’t intimidated by wigs and scarlet robes, and had taken the oath with a nonchalance which made only too plain his opinion of this archaic ritual. Venetia had met his slightly salacious smile with a long cool glance. The prosecution had called him to add weight to their case that relations between Ashe and his aunt had quickly descended into acrimony when they were in the pub together, and that Mrs. O’Keefe had been frightened of her nephew. But he had been an unconvincing and prejudiced witness and had done little to shake the evidence of the other pub witnesses that Ashe had, in fact, said little and had drunk less. “He used to sit very quiet,” said Wright, seduced by hubris into folly and turning to confide in the jury. “Dangerous quiet, if you ask me. And he’d stare at her with that look he has. He didn’t need drink to make him dangerous.”
Venetia had enjoyed her cross-examination of Stephen Wright and, by the time he was released, couldn’t resist a glance of commiseration at Rufus as he rose to try to undo some of the harm. Both knew that more had been lost during the last few minutes than one witness’s reliability. Every time a prosecution witness was discredited the whole case for the Crown became tainted with distrust. And she knew that she had had from the start one great advantage: there was no instinctive sympathy for the victim. Show the jury pictures of the violated body of a dead child, tender as a fledgeling, and some atavistic voice within always whispered, “Someone ought to pay for this.” The need for vengeance, so easy to confuse with the imperatives of justice, always worked for the prosecution. The jury didn’t want to convict the wrong man, but they did need to convict someone. The prosecution evidence was always weighted with the need to believe it true. But here those stark police photographs of the victim, the flabby pendulous belly and the spreading breasts, even the severed vessels, so horribly reminiscent of a pig’s carcass hung on a butcher’s hook, evoked disgust rather than pity. Her character had been effectively destroyed. It was seldom difficult in a murder case; the victim, after all, was not there to defend herself. Rita O’Keefe had been a drunken, unattractive, quarrelsome fifty-five-year-old with an insatiable appetite for gin and sex. Four of the jury were young, two only just of the qualifying age. The young were not indulgent towards age and ugliness. Their silent inner voices would be muttering a very different message: “She had it coming to her.”
And it was now, in the second week and seventh day of the trial, that they had reached what, for Venetia, was the critical cross-examination of a prosecution witness: Mrs. Dorothy Scully, neighbour of the victim, a widow aged sixty-nine, the woman who had told the police, and now the court, that she had seen Garry Ashe leaving Number 397 at eleven fifteen on the night of the murder.
Venetia had watched her during the examination-in-chief, noting her strengths, assessing her vulnerability. She knew what she needed to know about Mrs. Scully; she had made that her business. The woman was poor, but not desperately so, a widow managing on her pension. Westway had, after all, been relatively prosperous, a comfortable enclave of the respectable, reliable, law-abiding lower-middle class who owned their houses and took pride in clean lace curtains and carefully tended front gardens, each a small triumph of individuality over the drab conformity. But their world was crashing down with their houses, rising in great choking clouds of ochre dust. Only a few houses were now left standing as the work on the road-widening went inexorably ahead. Even the painted slogans of protest on the boards which separated the vacant lots from the road were beginning to fade. Soon there would be nothing but tarmac and the ceaseless roar and screech of traffic thundering westward out of London. In time even memory would be powerless to conjure up what once had been. Mrs. Scully would be one of the last to leave. Her memories would be built on air. She had brought with her into the witness box her soon-to-be-obliterated past, her uncertain future, her respectability and her honesty. It was an inadequate armoury with which to confront one of the country’s most formidable cross-examiners.
Venetia saw that she had purchased no new coat for this court appearance. A new coat was a major extravagance; only the onset of a particularly cold winter, or the wearing out of the old coat, could justify that expenditure. But the hat was obviously bought for the occasion, a pale-blue felt with a small brim, adorned with a huge white flower, imposing a note of discordant frivolity above the serviceable tweed.
She had taken the oath nervously, her voice almost inaudible. Twice during her evidence the judge had bent forward to ask her in his courteous old voice to speak up. She had, however, become more at ease as the examination proceeded. Rufus had tried to make it easy for her by occasionally repeating a question before she replied, but Venetia thought that his witness had found this more confusing than helpful. She guessed, too, that Mrs. Scully had disliked his over-loud, slightly hectoring upper-class voice and his habit of addressing his remarks to the air some few feet above the heads of the jury. Rufus had always been at his most effective when cross-examining a hostile witness. Mrs. Scully, old, pathetic, a little hard of hearing, brought out the bully in him. But she had been a good witness, answering simply and convincingly.
P. D. James was the author of twenty-one books, many of which feature her detective hero, Adam Dalgliesh, and have been televised or filmed. She was the recipient of many honors, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. In 1991 she was created Baroness James of Holland Park. She died in 2014 at the age of ninety-four.