The Dovedale Affair
JY Saville

In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it. I deserved it so I didn’t beg. My mother let up anyway after a few seconds and said, “Stephen, when are you going to learn to comb your hair before you come down for breakfast? I’m sick of having to do it for you.”

I couldn’t think of a good answer, or not one she’d want to hear, so I said nothing and sat down to my cereal.

“I don’t know why I bother anyway, you never take the slightest bit of notice.” She was silent for a moment then demanded to know why I was always so damned quiet. She knew why; telling her again would be pointless. “Stephen!”

“I swallowed the last of my oaty bites and laid the spoon aside. The tea-ring from the previous afternoon was still there on the table-top but then she’d had a lot on her mind.”

“Oh God; when will you stop this? Are you not tired of it yet?”

“I looked at her pleading brown eyes and saw the bags beneath them; it felt cruel to continue but she’d wanted me to break the silence.”

“I give up. Fine. Keep quiet. I’m going to work, I’ll see you tonight.”

I watched my mother fight her way into a coat that was too thin for the weather, and went back to my room to think about last night.

#

It was lunchtime when Val Conway heard the news, and the first thought that slunk into her mind uninvited was: Where had her son Stephen been last night before she’d heard him blunder through the kitchen on his way to bed? Working in a sandwich shop, the middle of the day didn’t give her much time to brood, but the younger women, staff and familiar customers, twittered with nervous excitement about it all afternoon. Theirs was a small market town—violent crime was something that happened in cities to distant relatives who’d had the audacity to move away. This wasn’t just one dead girl, it was the world turned upside down.

An afternoon coffee-break gave Val a few minutes to turn the matter over in peace. Jessica Dovedale was dead; a year ago Stephen had been unofficially warned off her by the local police and, though there’d been no further complaints, Val had no idea whether her son still watched Jessica or sat outside her house in the early hours. Jessica could have simply resigned herself to it, thinking Stephen was irritating, maybe even creepy, but ultimately harmless. Had Val and Jessica both been wrong?

#

By mid-afternoon I was getting nowhere, except further through a packet of custard creams. I needed a change of tactic so I headed down to the scene of the crime.

By this time, the boys in blue had been and gone, leaving behind a local constable and a strip of official-looking tape.

“Steve, have you got no sense?” he called. “I know you’re upset about Jessie but don’t let the city lads catch you hanging round here.”

I nodded my acknowledgement and continued past, going the long way round so he didn’t see I was heading for the riverbank behind the houses.

I didn’t climb my usual tree: I couldn’t see anyone around but there was no sense handing secrets to someone watching from a window. Not that I’d be coming here again now that Jessica was dead, but I didn’t think I’d ever been seen here in the dark and I wasn’t about to give them any rope to hang me with. I’m not as stupid as most people think. I walked slowly, mainly watching the water to my left, trying not to look like I was looking at Jessica’s back garden, still a few houses away and up the steep bank to my right. From my tree I could see over the high fence, but as I passed under its branches on the path all I could see was loose guttering and a moss-spattered roof. I sped up as I passed under the shadow of Jessica’s fence. The path here was more exposed, narrowed by the long, low-fenced, terraced gardens of the older houses Jessica’s parents lived beside because living in one would have been too expensive. Stubby solar lamps snaked down the second long garden, but the first was pitch black at night, with a wooden gate that wouldn’t squeak. Useful if you were planning a silent getaway.

#

Judging by the appraising look her neighbour had given her through the window as Val fumbled her key into the lock, it hadn’t taken long for other people to remember Stephen’s fascination with Jessica Dovedale. Presumably the police hadn’t got round to that way of thinking yet or they’d have already been here asking questions. Val turned the tap off and stood with the kettle poised over the sink. The house felt empty.

“Stephen?” she called from the doorway but at the same time started jogging towards the stairs, knowing he wouldn’t answer even if he was in. A wave of nausea hit her halfway up and she grabbed the banister for support. This was a murder investigation with policemen drafted in from a city where no-one knew each other, not the local force who knew Stephen and had seen what his father’s death had done to him.

“Stephen?” she whispered as she lurched onto the landing. The late afternoon sun lit her son’s room in a way that emphasised its emptiness. Val noticed the two custard creams resting in a torn packet on his bedside cabinet and began to cry.

She didn’t indulge herself for long. She hadn’t had the opportunity or inclination to do so in a long while and this wasn’t a good time to start slipping. Stephen needed her to keep calm and protect him. The trouble was, Stephen was a grown man, at least in the eyes of the law, and no amount of character references from his mother would help if he was in trouble. Val nibbled nervously at her lower lip—she couldn’t even bring herself to say the phrase in her head. He would need help if he had indeed murdered Jessica Dovedale. There, it was out, she had formed the words that told her she didn’t know her son or what he did or thought, or where he went. It would have been an appropriate time to cry again, but she had hauled herself past that, and there was tea to be made.

#

I walked the slow way home; I won’t say the scenic route because most of the routes round here are scenic if you like that kind of thing. I had plenty to think about, and it’s hard to concentrate under a barrage of questions and comments. Sometimes I think my mother just wants to kill the silence, but this evening she’d have genuine questions. Like what had I seen last night? I wasn’t sure myself.

I’d never meant to upset Jessica and maybe she knew that—why would I when her silent embrace in a deserted school corridor had been a marked contrast to everyone else’s reaction to my dad’s death? A sergeant who knew Mr Dovedale had a quiet word and mentioned restraining orders, and I gave up on being her guardian angel. Until I couldn’t sleep one night. If she realised I’d started watching her again, she never gave any sign. Sometimes she’d seem to stare right at me before she closed the curtains, though I knew she couldn’t see me in the dark at that distance from a lit room. I’d never watched from up a tree before the warning either; she had no way of knowing I was there.

Last night around nine it was already dark and if you take the right paths you can reach the riverbank without being seen clearly. Every time I think about buying bigger binoculars that won’t fit in my pocket I think about the walk through the streets before I reach my vantage point: All it needs is a nosy neighbour with a new security light and I’d be in for a chat with Sergeant Foster again.

Tuesday nights, Mr and Mrs Dovedale go out with friends and don’t get home till nearly one. I knew that, their neighbours knew that, half the town probably knew. If anyone wanted to pick a day for killing Jessica at home, Tuesday was a good start. Except that Tuesdays were also a good time for finding Neil Montgomery at the Dovedale residence. Neil Montgomery: rising solicitor, a few years older than Jessica and me, and a few tens of thousands richer. He drove a well-polished sports car, but never to Jessica’s, though he was easy enough to spot without it. He’d been fooling around with her for a couple of years; her parents turned a blind eye, thinking he’d marry her when he was ready. More fool them.

It sounds old-fashioned but this is an old-fashioned town; they don’t like suicides like my dad and they don’t like unmarried mothers. They, whoever ‘they’ are, probably hadn’t figured that one out yet, but I’d seen Jessica side-on to her full-length mirror, trying to decide if it showed, a mixture of anxiety and excitement on her face. I never saw how Neil looked about it; he always made sure the curtains were closed. I guess he had more to hide. Funny how it hadn’t jolted him towards a proposal, though.

Neil Montgomery had been a cog in a wealthy wheel for a while, till he figured out that while the big city’s pleasant, there’s too much competition. In a small town you could make partner in a few years without even raising your blood pressure. Marry the right local girl and you could inherit the firm, or enough money that you didn’t mind being second-in-command. Jessica had the blonde hair and the curves, she just didn’t have the right Daddy.

Last night I’d been watching for a while when I drifted off. I wedge myself in the branches whenever I’m up there, just in case. I’m supposed to be watching over her—it’s the only way I know how to thank her for her understanding—but I never thought there was a serious threat. That’s what I’d thought about my dad, too. In a way, it’s my fault Jessica’s dead, but I need to be careful who I say that to.

#

When Stephen let himself in and closed the door behind him, clearly alone, Val let out a breath and realised how hard she’d been gripping her mug. It didn’t look like he’d been arrested yet, and the police weren’t with him, wanting to search the place. It could mean they just hadn’t got round to him yet—the city policemen looking into this wouldn’t know Stephen’s past without looking through files. Unless someone stepped in and told them.

“There’s tea in the pot.” She watched him calmly pour himself a mug, but there was a frown on his face that she’d seen earlier and she didn’t like the look of it. “Where have you been? Have you heard any…Did you know about…”

She couldn’t bring herself to finish the question but when Stephen looked down at her from where he was leaning against the worktop, she knew he knew that Jessica Dovedale was dead. She just wished she knew how long he’d known, and how he’d come by the information.

#

My mother was waiting in the kitchen: A tea-fuelled vigil for the murderous son. I could see the doubt in her eyes and it drove a needle right down into me. If my own mother wasn’t sure I hadn’t done it, my only hope was to prove that someone else had. I was pretty sure I could do that, as long as I had the time to work it all out.

I’d woken up in my tree last night at a sharp crack. I thought it was a twig snapping on the path, but when I looked down I couldn’t see any movement. Jessica’s lamp shone through her bedroom curtain as it had before I’d dozed off. I’d seen Neil leave around eleven, not quite sneaking round the side of the house and down the driveway, but not about to wave or blow kisses to Jessica as she stood in the kitchen doorway to watch him go. I checked my watch: It was after midnight. As I moved my head up again I caught movement, and my binoculars revealed a black-clad figure tiptoeing down the Dovedales’ garden toward the gap in the side fence.

Even on tiptoe in the dark, that couldn’t be anyone but Neil. His height, build, the way he moved; I had watched him often enough to recognise him at a distance. I hadn’t seen him as the type to do the Milk Tray Man act, but maybe I had misjudged him. That’s what I thought last night, and I might have been right, but only because I’d never expected him to be capable of murder.

#

Val sipped her tea and watched Stephen’s facial expression subtly shift from concentration to partial enlightenment to puzzlement and back again. She wished she knew what was going on in his head; she also knew she could find out if she let him externalise his perpetual monologue but the thought of having to listen to all that was more than she could bear. And what if she heard things she didn’t want to? Was she safer being able to honestly deny all knowledge of his whereabouts at the time of the attack?

He looked down at her again, over the mug grasped in both large hands. He was taller, broader and stronger even than his father had been. Certainly more than a match for Val, or even for the slightly taller Jessica. She didn’t know how Jessica had died, but the phrase ‘brutal attack’ had been used, and that implied strength. So Stephen probably had the opportunity, he had the physical capability, in his unfathomable mind he might even have had a motive, and she was sure the police would find a plausible one. Did he have the inclination?

#

It occurred to me belatedly, as these things often do, that the sharp crack of a twig nearby could just as easily have been the breaking of a rim lock fifty yards away. The sound of a house being broken into after a crime had been committed. Neil hadn’t been dressed like a designer commando to deliver chocolates; he’d want to be seen to have done that, at least by Jessica. There was only one reason I could think of why he’d be sneaking away last night.

There was a knock on the door and the remains of my mother’s tea jumped over the rim of her mug and wet her jumper sleeve.

“It’s the police!” she gasped. I smiled. This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for.

Two of them came in and sat down at the kitchen table, just wanting to ask me some questions, so they said. I had answers, but not the ones they were looking for.

#

Val kept swallowing, unable to speak. She hadn’t got as far as making any reasonable plans for if the police should call. Now they were sitting at her kitchen table, one of them sipping politely from her best china, and she didn’t know what to do.

“Well now, Stephen. What can you tell us about last night? Out on the town, were you?”

Val watched the older detective smile pleasantly at her son as he asked the question, and instinct took over.

“He was in all evening, he never left the house,” she blurted. Three sets of disbelieving eyes turned to her.

“Why do you think you need to protect your son, Mrs Conway?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I’m just stating facts.” But she wasn’t stating anything, she could hear the terror in her wavering voice.

“A witness saw your son in the street where the crime was committed, Mrs Conway. We just want to know if he saw anything.”

Val’s eyes flicked to Stephen’s impassive face. He was no longer worried as he had seemed earlier, but he might just be resigned to the inevitable.

“What witness? They must be mistaken.”

“She said mistaken but we all knew she meant lying.” The two policemen turned to Stephen, and Val covered her eyes with the hand that wasn’t supporting her against the table. She wasn’t sure she could hold tears in by force but if necessary she’d try. “The cops were wearing her down but it was obvious to everyone she was spinning a yarn because she thought I needed an alibi.”

“What’s that, son?” asked Inspector Wilson. “Are you taking a rise?”

“He’s not well! He hasn’t been right since his father died, ask anyone. I…” Val’s coherence exploded into shards of sobs and squeaks and the young sergeant poured her some more tea.

“What do you mean, not right?”

#

Wilson soon cottoned on and he didn’t interrupt again for a while. Everyone in town knew how I’d felt about Jessica, even if they didn’t know why, but Neil was the only one who needed to misdirect the police. The inspector wouldn’t confirm he was their witness but I didn’t need him to: No-one had seen me in Jessica’s street because I hadn’t been there. I took him through the events of Tuesday night and he looked sceptical but not outright disbelieving. When I mentioned Jessica’s pregnancy the sergeant’s eyes went from bored to alert, so I guessed they’d found that out medically and no-one else had mentioned it. Maybe her parents hadn’t realised.

They left a while later and told me not to skip town, but I had no plans in that direction. I wanted to see Neil Montgomery brought in.

I didn’t have long to wait. While we’d been talking, someone out on the riverbank had found a bundle of black clothing with blood on it. Expensive clothes, much too small for me. Rich, athletic Neil Montgomery’s size. Turned out to be not so rich, not so athletic Jessica Dovedale’s blood.

I was never called as a witness; Wilson didn’t want to complicate matters. Once they’d found the clothes they could prove Neil had worn them. It didn’t take them long to figure out that no-one had opened the kitchen door after the lock had been broken, either; Jessica’s parents always used the front. Neil might have been a good lawyer but he made a lousy criminal. As far as damaging his career went, I’d say marrying Jessica or even leaving her to be a single mother wouldn’t have been as bad as being jailed for murder.

Inspector Wilson came to see us a while later, and ‘accidentally’ broke my binoculars as he was leaving. It didn’t bother me; I wouldn’t be needing them anymore. Although I couldn’t have helped bring down Neil Montgomery without them, the police would have worked their way round to him eventually, and all my watching didn’t save Jessica Dovedale.

—END—

JY Saville lives in the north of England and writes mainly short fiction, mainly in the genre loosely termed speculative, but has recently embarked on a parallel life of crime, the first result of which is here at Comets and Criminals. Her work has featured in, among others: Bards and Sages Quarterly; Short, Fast and Deadly; Boston Literary Magazine; and The View From Here. In 2010 she released her first literary graphic novel, Boys Don’t Cry, and is working on further comic collaborations with the artist Mark Pexton. She blogs at thousandmonkeys.wordpress.com.

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