The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 24

The Crown Of Thorns

Did you tell Becky and Gerry?
10.11am

Yes
10.13am

And where did you go?
10.13am

Havent gone yet
10.14am

Jesus, why not?
10.14am

Because I can’t take Betty out of school. Would look weird.
Still in touch with Dave’s parents in Shrewsbury. Taking
them there today straight after school
10.16am

OK.
10.16am

You alright?
10.17am

Got to conserve our money. We’re checking out today.
I’ve got an idea where we can stay till Sunday
morning, then we’ll have to think of something else.
10.19am

Where are you staying?
10.20am

Safer if I don’t tell you. Delete
these texts. I’ll be in touch. X
10.21am

XX
10.23am

***

‘I don’t think this is a good idea, Brophy. It sounds weird.’

Pete stuffed the rest of his toiletries in his laptop bag and drank his awful hotel tea. ‘It’s just for a couple of nights. It’s sheltered and dry. It’ll be cold but we’ll cope.’

‘And where do we eat?’ asked Marketa. ‘Where do we sleep?’

Pete sighed. He had already been through this. ‘Have you got any better ideas?’

‘Yeah, run away to Scotland, or somewhere. Anywhere. Don’t fucking stay in your home town.’

In fairness to Marketa, the wisdom of remaining in his home town had been questioned by Pete himself. He had had to go to Liverpool, to warn his family of the dark clouds gathering. He had thought that his familiarity with the city would be an advantage – 19 years in London had failed to expunge the scouse from his bone marrow – but so much had changed since he had left. Alleys were blocked off, buildings had cut off old short cuts, he might as well have been a stranger. In truth, he was now. Get through the next couple of days, he thought, and then they would move on – somewhere further north, somewhere cheaper, where they could buy some more time. And then what? How could he end this? What was his exit strategy?

But there they were, an hour later, outside Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, its red Woolton sandstone walls set against an off-white sky, a splash of Carpaccio.

‘I still think this is a terrible idea,’ said Marketa.

‘Come on,’ said Pete, and they walked up the path to the threshold. He read the sign next to the entrance.

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
RC Church
Mass: Sunday 8.45am, 10.30am, 6.30pm. Tuesday,
Thursday, Saturday 12.15pm.
Benediction: Sunday 4pm.
Parish Priest: Fr Stuart Williams

So, Father O’Driscoll had gone, Pete thought. Just as well. No evening Masses. That was helpful. They had until, what, 11.15am on Saturday? They would have to make themselves scarce for a couple of hours, but then they would have until 7.30am on Sunday. After that, they would have to make a move, he supposed.

The door was open a crack. Pete pulled it further and he and Marketa slipped inside. ‘Wait here,’ he whispered. ‘I’m going on a recce.’

‘A what?’

‘Just wait here.’

He left Marketa in the vestibule and walked into the nave. He recognised everything, the echo of the door swinging closed, the triptych above the altar, the Stations of the Cross running down the walls, the candles flickering and guttering in the Lady Chapel, the marble font at the entrance, the Times New Roman font on the door of the parish priest’s confessional, even the incense hanging in the air. But it felt like a simulation, empty. It was not the same without God being there, and God was not there. God was nowhere.

Then he had to make sure that nobody else was there. He could see the Lady Chapel was clear, but the Sacred Heart Chapel was out of view. He crept along the wall, feeling the cold 19th century radiators with his hand, his fingers rattling along the bars like a stick against railings. The Sacred Heart Chapel was empty, save for the statue of Jesus holding out his heart.

‘Just come in.’ Pete’s instruction to Marketa reverberated through the church, and she joined him in the Lady Chapel. ‘OK, stay here,’ Pete said. ‘I’ve just got to…’

‘Come here, stay here, stand over there, do this, do that. I’m not a dog,’ said Marketa.

‘I don’t mean that, it’s just, y’know, this is the bit I know, and… You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?’

‘Yup,’ said Marketa.

Pete shook his head and made his way to the heavy sacristy door. Slowly he pushed it open and stepped inside.

The sacristy was just as it had been: the fireplace, over which hung the re-framed portrait of Canon Price, the thurible, with its golden chains draped over a hook, the scorch marks on the burgundy linoleum near the grate, caused by red hot charcoals dropped accidentally by careless altar servers. Crucially, the dark oak cabinet was still there. He pulled open a drawer. There were the silver foil-wrapped rolls of charcoal, the box of incense granules, and the golden vessel filled with the same grains, its tiny spoon sticking out. He put his hand in, and felt for the back of the drawer. There it was. Alleluia for the Roman Catholic sense of tradition. He pulled out the choir loft key, ostentatious and chunky, like the key to a Middle Earth cell. He was just about to go back to Marketa when a thought struck him. He slid the drawer shut again and walked through the sacristy, past the closed vestry door, to the presbytery door. The priests’ house was attached to the church via a corridor, off which lay a couple of parish offices. Opposite the offices was a polished wooden sign, the gold leaf name of the parish priest – Fr Williams – next to a red tile reading ‘OUT’. This was going to be useful.

Marketa was gazing at one of the Stations of the Cross when Pete returned – Veronica wiping the face of Jesus, the crown of thorns with its trickles of blood. ‘Got it,’ he said. ‘It’s through here.’ He took Marketa to the door to the staircase which led to the choir loft and slipped the key into the lock. It was stiff, but he lifted the key a little, and it turned. He had not lost the knack. Muscle memory.

They climbed the stone spiral staircase up into the choir loft; slits of windows were letting in just enough light to illuminate their path. He took her past the organ, onto the mezzanine. Misery Mary peered at him, her plaster face disapproving. Even if nobody else in the parish remembered what he had done with Jade Woods, she did. ‘Here? Really?’ asked Marketa.

‘OK,’ said Pete. ‘It’s dry, it’s quiet, it’s safe as long as we leave when I say, and, most of all, it’s free.’

‘It’s cold.’

‘Yeah… I’ll go through it again.’ He sighed. ‘We’ve checked out of the hotel. We haven’t checked in anywhere else. If anybody is following us, they’ll assume we’ve left the city. We stay here till Sunday morning, and then we leave for Scotland, like you wanted. Nobody will be looking then.’

‘And where are we supposed to wash? The font?’

‘No. I’ve got an idea about that…’

***

Felipe Herrero lay on his bed and waited for the call. Chapman – it would have to be Chapman himself – was in deep negotiations with representatives of the Liverpool underworld, and until he got the all-clear he could do nothing. He scrolled through his iPad again, looking at his research into Brophy. No criminal record, no points on his driving licence, not known to the Met until the Gruszka incident, some involvement in a fatal RTA in Liverpool when he was 16. Other than that totally clean. Unmarried. Dead parents. One brother, two sisters, one in Liverpool. Difficult to imagine anybody who had left less of a mark on the world. That helped. That always helped.

The Czech woman was going to be more complicated, of course. She had friends. She had a passport. More than that, she had ties to Karl Chapman himself. He could not deal with her in Liverpool. It would be a gift to forensics, and Chapman needed to be protected above all. He would have to take her back to London, of course, make it look like a suicide. Difficult, yes, but he was a professional. He would post a message on her social media accounts saying she could not go on without her old boyfriend. Chapman’s little helper in the force would make it all go away. He put the iPad down and switched on the television, skipping through the hotel channels until he reached an episode of 60 Minute Makeover. He still had the spare room to do, and he had no clue. Something welcoming, he thought. Not too welcoming, he would not want visitors to stay too long. Thin curtains, maybe…

His phone buzzed. A text from an unknown number. ‘Green’, it said. He sighed. He switched off the television, picked up his iPad, and called up the address of Amanda Brophy.

***

‘He’s out.’

‘Are you sure?’ asked Marketa.

‘Yeah, there’s a little flag which says whether he’s in the presbytery. He’s switched it to OUT.’

‘I don’t know…’

‘I’ve just been in there. If you hurry, you can have a shower. I’ll keep lookout. Honest, it’ll be fine.’

Marketa thought for a moment, then gathered up her toiletries. ‘Show me,’ she said. Pete led her down the cold stone steps, through the Lady Chapel and sacristy, and into the presbytery. ‘Up the stairs, second on the right,’ he told her. ‘I’ll keep watch.’

‘Hmm,’ said Marketa, and she trudged up the stairs. Pete watched her, listened for the click of the lock, and took up position at the sacristy window, overlooking the back door. When the parish priest returned, he would use that door, because it was next to the garage. The time it would take for Fr Williams to open the garage, park the car, and close the garage would surely be sufficient for Pete to alert Marketa, and for them to leave the presbytery undetected. A clean getaway, Pete thought, and then congratulated himself for thinking it.

He told himself to concentrate. If he lost even seconds, it could be disastrous. They would be arrested for burglary. The Met would be alerted. Even if they were bailed, Chapman would know where they were. Again he questioned the wisdom of keeping the Bluray disc, but it was the only piece of leverage he had over Chapman, and maybe the only piece of evidence which could confirm his own innocence. Concentrate! A red Ford Mondeo slowed down as it approached the driveway into the church. Was this…? No, it drove on. Pete supposed it would help if he had any sort of idea what car the parish priest drove.

Another car, a silver Toyota Yaris, went past. What sort of car would a parish priest drive? Did Catholic priests get company cars?

He heard the turn of a key in the front door. Shit! He had just assumed Fr Williams was in his car. Parish business. But no. He looked down the corridor into the presbytery. Fr Williams, it appeared – a balding man with glasses, a 40-year-old man in the body of a 65-year-old priest – was carrying a loaf of sliced bread, swinging it playfully as he walked down towards the kitchen. He was singing ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ from Fiddler On The Roof.

An idea came into his head. If he had had more time to think about it, he would surely have dismissed it, but right at that point he knew it was exactly the right thing to do. He let himself out through the back door, and raced around to the front of the presbytery. He was dishevelled – he had worn the same clothes for days and was unshaven – so this should work.

He rang the doorbell and waited.

***

Herrero rang the doorbell and waited. He adjusted his tie. He had parked the silver Toyota Yaris further down Brotherswater Road. He felt it gave the wrong impression. He looked through the leaded glass and saw a woman’s figure moving towards him. The door opened and a forty-ish woman stood there. She wore the tired eyes of a mother of young children, and a pair of bee-shaped slippers.

‘Amanda Brophy?’ he said.

‘Yes…?’

He pulled out an ID badge from his jacket pocket. ‘Detective Sergeant Rahman of the Metropolitan Police. I wondered if I could ask you a few questions about your brother, Peter Anthony Brophy.’

The woman’s eyes flickered. ‘What’s it about? Is he OK?’

‘It’s probably better if we do this indoors,’ Herrero said.

The woman looked up and down the street. ‘You’d better come in,’ she said. She led him through to the dining room, where a little boy played with a Thomas The Tank Engine train. ‘I don’t really have much time. I’ve got to leave to pick my eldest up for school in a few minutes. Here, y’are, sit down…’

They sat at the dining table.

‘What’s he done?’ she asked.

‘We need to ask him some questions in connection with three murders in North London…’

‘Murders? Really!’ The woman’s eyes were wide with shock. Too wide?

‘There’s no suggestion that he’s responsible,’ Herrero said, ‘but we think he might be able to assist us with our inquiries.’

The little boy approached him. ‘My Thomas,’ he said, showing Herrero his toy.

‘Ah, he’s very good. I like Thomas,’ he said. ‘I just need to speak to your mummy, OK?’

‘Bloody hell,’ said the woman. ‘So why have you come to me?’

‘We have reason to believe that your brother is in Liverpool. Has he made contact with you?’

‘Christ, no. I haven’t spoken him for the best part of 20 years. And I’ll tell you this, if he’s got any bloody sense, he won’t come anywhere near me, the little get. Not after what he did.’

‘What?’

‘Family stuff. Let’s just say if he turned up here, you’d be doing me for murder.’

‘So you haven’t seen him at all? Do you have any idea where he might be in Liverpool? Why he might have come up here? Does he have friends? A girlfriend? Somebody who might know where he is?’

‘You’re joking, aren’t ya? Him? Friends up here? Not a chance. Honest, not a card, not a present, not a phone call – nothing. It’s like we’re dead to him, the little gobshite.’

Herrero examined her face during the outburst. Was she protesting too much? He could usually tell when people were lying to him, but there was the timbre of truth in there. This might be more difficult than he had imagined. He should leave. If she was telling the truth, there was nothing for him here. And if she was lying his telecomms contacts would be able to see if she made a call after he left. It would give him a lead, at least.

‘Well, I am sorry to take up your time,’ said Herrero. He stood up and handed the woman a card emblazoned with the Metropolitan Police crest. ‘If you hear from Peter, please give me a call…’

‘Uncle Peter,’ said the little boy. The mother’s face became pale.

‘What was that?’ Herrero asked the boy, his voice soft, reassuring.

‘I saw Uncle Peter. Mummy cried.’

‘Did you?’ he said. He sat down. ‘Let me see your Thomas again.’ The boy complied. ‘Do you want to see my toy?’ Herrero asked. The boy nodded, and Herrero drew his gun, another adapted Glock 17 with a silencer. He should not really have used the same type of gun, but he had been so happy with the results last time he thought it was a pity to have to change.

‘Sit down, Amanda,’ he said.

***

Father Williams swung open the presbytery door, revealing a desperate man. ‘Hello, padre,’ said Pete. ‘Could I trouble you for a couple of bob?’

The priest sighed. ‘I don’t recognise you. Are you new?’

‘Just up from London, padre,’ said Pete. He had no idea why he was calling the priest ‘padre’, save a vague recollection of an Irish tramp who used to call at the presbytery when he was a boy. He had been in the parish office when Father O’Driscoll answered the door to the beggar and he remembered the aggressive tone of the name ‘padre’.

‘Just wait there,’ Father Williams said, and he turned to go towards the stairs…

‘Actually, padre,’ blurted out Pete suddenly, ‘I couldn’t have a drink of water, could I? I’m parched like an old leaf.’

The priest turned on his black shiny heel and headed for the kitchen. ‘Don’t go anywhere,’ he told Pete.

Marketa appeared at the top of the stairs, her hair dripping. She had heard the commotion, and was ready to make a break for it. She looked over the closed banister at Pete, standing in the hallway. Pete indicated with his index finger that she should hurry to the sacristy while the coast was clear. She started to descend when Pete held up his hand.

‘Here you are,’ said Father Williams, carrying a paper cup. Marketa ducked down behind the banister. He handed Pete the cup. ‘Thanks, Father,’ he said. ‘That’s awfully kind of you.’

‘I’ll go and get you some money. Listen… what’s your name?’

‘Orlando,’ said Pete. It was the first name which came into his head. The priest’s forehead creased.

‘That’s an unusual name,’ he said.

‘Me parents met at Disney World,’ Pete replied.

‘Right,’ said Father Williams, disconcerted, ‘Just wait there a second and…’ He turned to make for the stairs again.

‘Padre, wait!’ said Pete.

The priest turned back.

‘Could I have a blessing first?’

Father Williams placed his palms on Pete’s bowed head and began a prayer of blessing. Marketa took her chance. Crouching, she crept down the stairs and along the corridor to the safety of the sacristy. Pete watched her out of the corner of his eye.

‘I’ll get that money. Listen, Orlando, I can’t do this every week. Lots of people need help, not just you, and I only…’

Pete’s phone rang.

‘You’ve got a phone?’ Father Williams asked.

‘Yeah, padre. They’re cheaper than houses.’ Pete took it out of his pocket. The caller ID said simply ‘Home.’ He rejected the call.

‘They’ll call back,’ he said. ‘So that money…?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Father Williams. ‘Out you go.’

***

‘He didn’t answer’, Amanda told Herrero…

A couple of minutes earlier, Herrero had explained the situation to Brophy’s sister.

‘The way this works,’ he had said, ‘is you have two options. It can only go two ways. You either tell me where your brother is, or you do not.

‘If you tell me, I will contact my associate and tell him not to pick up little Elizabeth from Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Primary School at 3.30, and you all get to go on with your lives.

‘If you do not tell me, I will show little – what’s your name, little one?’

The little boy answered, ‘Lucas.’

‘I will show little Lucas how my toy works. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Lucas? And then I will show little Elizabeth how my toy works. And you, you I will spare. I wonder how you will feel. All that potential snuffed out, and all your fault.’

Amanda howled. ‘I don’t know where he is. I really don’t. Please don’t.’

‘I’m not sure I can believe you,’ said Herrero. ‘Come here, Lucas.’

‘He didn’t tell me. He wouldn’t tell me! Please!’

‘What a terrible brother, to put you in this situation.’ He looked at her face. ‘Hmm,’ he said, ‘I believe you. I really don’t want to hurt you all, but I have a job to do. So how can we find your brother, so I can have a word with him, and tell him what a bad brother he is to his loyal sister?’

Amanda looked at Lucas, playing in the corner with Thomas. It was no choice at all.

‘I… I can call him. I gave him my phone.’

‘Well, then. This is progress,’ said Herrero. ‘Give him a call and find out where he is. And please don’t try anything. Assume I will know if you do.’

And so she called her brother. The phone rang three times, and was cut off, she informed Herrero. Herrero sat on the floor next to Lucas. ‘Try again,’ he said.

***

Pete’s phone rang a second time when he entered the church. The Nokia tune echoed through the nave. ‘Jesus,’ Pete said. He rejected the call again, and switched the phone to silent.

Marketa was back in the choir loft when Pete arrived. ‘Bloody hell, that was close,’ said Pete.

‘You fucking idiot,’ said Marketa.

‘We got away with it, didn’t we?’

There was a pause, then they began to laugh. ‘What were you?’ said Marketa. ‘A hobo? And what was that accent? Jesus.’

‘Hang on, I need to…’ He took the phone out of his pocket and called Amanda.

‘God, can you not do that?’ said Pete. ‘I’m supposed to be in hiding and all of a sudden it’s Trigger Happy TV.’

‘Sorry, love,’ said Amanda. ‘Where are you hiding?’

‘It wouldn’t be much of a hiding place if I told you, would it? Honest, it’s safer if you don’t know.’

‘I know, but I’m leaving in an hour, going to pick up Betty, and then I’ll be gone, and you’ll have gone by the time we get back. I’ve got money for you…’

‘I don’t know… Are you all right? You sound weird.’

‘No, I’m fine,’ said Amanda. ‘I’m just a bit upset by it all. Tell us where you are, and I’ll bring you some money and food. You’ll be able to have a cup of coffee…’

Pete thought for a moment. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘I’m hiding in church.’

‘OK, see you later. Love you.’

‘Love you too,’ said Pete, ending the call.

‘Your sister?’ Marketa said.

‘Get your things,’ said Pete. ‘She needs my help. They’ve got to her.’

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