by Julius Falconer
The little girl sitting on the stairs in her night-clothes heard the voices raised in anger. The shouting had woken her, and she had crept out of bed, frightened and uncertain. She dared not descend the staircase but sat trembling at the top, unable to return to bed. She could see light streaming through the living-room door into the hall, and the familiar furniture – the hall-stand, a telephone-stool, a wooden settle containing the croquet set - reassured her that this was not a nightmare; and she recognised her father’s voice.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she heard her father saying. ‘Have some sense, man, before you say something stupid. I’m not going in with you, and that’s final. I can’t afford it, for a start, and I think your scheme’s risky. You can play for high stakes, if you like, but I’ve got a kid to consider, and I’m not going to put my hard-earned money where I might lose the lot.’
The little girl listened as the conversation continued, afraid to advance, afraid to retreat.
‘If it’s such a clever scheme, go to a bank!’
‘You know damn well I can’t do that, not since I went bankrupt.
Banks won’t look at me, but you’ve got the necessary capital. All you lack is a bit of savvy and a spirit of adventure. Come on, Len, what do you say?’
‘No, no, and again no! I’m not to be bullied into any scheme, Hick, and I’d be glad if you’d take your hare-brained plans elsewhere else and leave me in peace. When will you understand that I’m just not interested?’
‘You’re turning up the chance of a life-time. And what’s more, you’re preventing me from making a lot of money. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for, and you’re the only thing in my way.’
‘I’m not in your way, not in the least. You go ahead, but it’ll have to be without me.’
‘Damn you, Len, damn you to hell. You’re the only hope I’ve got. After all these years, don’t you owe me anything?’
‘I owe you friendship, Hick, but that doesn’t mean putting my family at risk. Look, we’ve talked enough. You’d better go before we fall out.’
‘Len, I must have that money. I’m in debt again. I’m ruined if I can’t make a lot of money, and fast. You’ve got to help me. I shall use force’.
‘I haven’t got to help you at all. I can give you a loan, but the amount you want is beyond me, and in any case I’m not risking it. Now please go away, and let’s hear no more about it.’
The little girl heard a vicious snarl of anger and sounds of a scuffle. Rooted to the spot, she shook with fright. The furniture in the living-room crashed here and there. Vases fell to the ground amidst the sounds of shattering glass. She heard panting and thuds. Then suddenly there was silence. After a short time, the living-room door was jerked from within, and a man in an overcoat hurried into the hall, wrenched the front-door open and disappeared into the night, slamming the door shut behind him.
Rachel was, inevitably, a hopeless witness. She could remember nothing of the conversation. The only item of information that could in any way be considered useful was the stranger’s name: Mick. Her conversation with the police-woman was almost completely unenlightening, beyond the basic item that she had heard part of the conversation as she sat on the stairs.
‘Rachel, pet, there’s nothing to be frightened of now. You’re safe with us. I want you to tell me all you can remember about last night. Take your time. Cuddle up to your Auntie Sarah and think hard. Do you know what time in the evening it was when you first heard voices downstairs? Had you been in bed long, or only just gone up?’
Rachel shook her head.
‘You obviously recognised your dad’s voice. Did you recognise the other voice at all?’
Rachel shook her head.
‘Had you ever heard it before?’
Another shake of the head.
‘Can you describe the man you saw leaving the house? Anything about him? Was he wearing a coat, for example? Was he tall? Young? Can you remember anything that was said?’
None of these questions, so important to the police inquiry, was met with anything but a denial, a mute shake of the head, as the eyes stared out uncomprehendingly. The aunt, summoned in haste by the char-lady on her discovery of the murder-scene that morning, had succeeded in extracting from the traumatised child the name of the stranger. Otherwise the police inquiry was starting from a tabula rasa.