On Thursday morning, not long after she had finished her morning chores and started on her coffee, she heard a key turn in the front door lock, and voices in the hallway. She steadied herself, feeling suddenly more excited than she had thought she would, and went to see what was happening.
Gerald, looking disheveled, stood between two large men, suited but also in long matching raincoats, almost as though they were in uniform.
‘Gerald’, she cried, ‘whatever’s going on?’ Gerald hung his head and said nothing, but the shortest of the two men stepped forward. ‘Mrs. Ashton?’ he asked. ‘Mrs. Hillary Ashton?’
‘Yes of course,’ Hillary said. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I’m Detective Holstein and this is Detective Appleby.’ He indicated his partner. ‘Your husband has been arrested on suspicion of illegally dealing with paedophilia.’
‘What?’ Hillary shrieked. ‘Gerald? Oh my God, this is ridiculous.’
‘That’s as may be,’ the detective said. ‘I understand there are two computers in the home. Would you please direct me to them.’
Hillary leaned against the wall and waved her hand towards the office. ‘Gerald,’ she implored, ‘tell me it’s not true.’
Gerald had clearly gone through a great deal that morning. He hardly looked at her. ‘It’s not true,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ve just no idea where all this came from, but I’ve done nothing of the sort.’
The detective returned to the hallway with the office computer in his arms.
‘We’re confiscating all computer equipment, Madam. There is only one computer in your office. Where is the other?’
‘Show me your warrant card,’ she snapped. She looked at the second detective. ‘Yours too.’
Detective Holstein, the shorter one, lowered the computer and put it on the sideboard. He took his warrant card from his inside pocket and flapped it open briefly.
‘Not good enough, Detective...’ she paused while she tried to remember his name, then tossed her head and glared at him. ‘You are supposed to identify yourself with your warrant card when first addressing a member of the public. And flapping it open like that is not identification.’
Gerald, clearly believing that she was making things worse, tried to stop her. ‘Hillary,’ he said; but she ignored him.
Detective Holstein shrugged his shoulders as though he couldn’t care less, and held his warrant card open for her to read. She reached for it, but he snatched it away. ‘Please, madam, it is an offence to attempt to take a police officer’s warrant card.’ He continued to hold it out.
‘Wait,’ Hillary ordered, and went into the office, returning seconds later with a notebook and pen. She peered at the warrant card, and wrote down his name and his warrant number, then turned to the second detective and repeated her actions. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Now, what was it that you wanted?’
‘The second computer, madam. Please surrender it immediately.’
Hillary stared at him. After a few seconds, as though she had made up her mind, she said, ‘I certainly will not. I’m going to call our solicitor. Do not move until I have spoken to him.’
‘Hillary,’ Gerald pleaded, ‘please, just do as they say.’
Hillary ignored him. She went to the office and returned with the telephone book and the cordless phone, opening the book on the sideboard, turning on the table lamp as she did so. It took her a few seconds to find the number of their solicitor and dial the number. The detectives waited, each making small noises that indicated patience in the face of recalcitrance.
Their solicitor had acted for them just once, and then only in the matter of the purchase of their house more than ten years before. He didn’t remember her.
‘Hillary Ashton,’ she repeated. ‘Yes, Ashton.’ She spelled the name. ‘132 Gibbins Street. Yes, that’s right.’
She outlined the problem. ‘Paedophilia. Yes. And they want to take all the computers away, even my laptop.’ She listened for a moment, then turned the telephone and pressed it to her blouse. ‘Do you have a search warrant?’ she asked Detective Holstein.
Holstein dug into his pocket and opened a sheet of paper. Hillary peered at it, taking it from him hesitantly, as though he might have stopped her doing so. He stood patiently, though. She held the search warrant under the table lamp. It would take her ten minutes to read it, and she’d still not understand it, she realised. She handed it back to him, and returned the telephone to her ear. ‘Yes, they have a search warrant, and it does seem to specify removal of computers.’
She listened. Finally she exhaled as though in defeat, long and loud. ‘Right, thanks,’ she said, and disconnected.
‘So, it seems you can take my computer. Very well.’ She led them to the kitchen and pointed out her laptop in its satchel hanging from the back of a tall chair beside the bench. ‘However,’ she told them, ‘That laptop is mine. Gerald has never used it. I need it. If you must investigate it, I demand that it be returned to me in the shortest possible time. I would suggest a couple of hours, at most.’
Detective Holstein took the satchel. ‘Thank you madam. Now, you have a large number of external disks, CDs and DVDs. We’re going to have to take them all. Do you have a large box?
‘Not for you to use,’ Hillary snapped.
Gerald sighed. ‘There are some suitcases in the bedroom. Please, use those.’
‘Gerald, how can you?’ Hillary demanded. And to the detectives she said, ‘No, you may not.’
But Gerald for once ignored her and led the taller detective to the bedroom upstairs. They returned with two large suitcases, and went into the office. They ignored the printers and the large CRT monitor, but unplugged and removed the two backup hard drives and all the disks they could find. ‘DVDs?’ asked Detective Appleby.
Gerald frowned. ‘You’ve got them,’ he replied.
‘Oh,’ Gerald understood. ‘I suppose they’ll be in the front room, in a cabinet under the TV.
Gerald showed them, but they hadn’t had a video machine since it broke down ages ago. ‘Still, you can take the lot. I’ve got nothing to hide.’
‘Thumb drives? Anything like that?’
‘At work,’ he said. ‘In my brief case.’
The two detectives looked around the house, then glanced at each other. They had everything they wanted. Detective Appleby took out a receipt book, and listed everything they had placed in the suitcases, signed it and gave it to Hillary, who took it reluctantly. It really wasn’t good enough, she thought, nowhere near specific enough.
‘Wait,’ she told them as they were closing the suitcases. She disappeared into the hallway, returning a minute later with a small digital camera. With both suitcases open on the floor, and with the receipt lying on top, she took several photographs with the aid of the flash, then checked them on the tiny screen at the back of the camera. ‘Right,’ she told them when she was satisfied. ‘You can take them now.’
She turned to her husband. ‘Roberts said he’ll be sending his junior to the police station later today.’ She eyed the Detectives. ‘That’s the local police station, is it?’
Detective Holstein nodded. ‘For the time being,’ he said.
As the suitcases were closed and taken out to the car, Hillary took Gerald in her arms. ‘I’ll be doing everything I can,’ she told him. He said nothing, keeping his eyes lowered, his shoulders slumped. ‘They won’t find anything. It’s all a huge mistake, isn’t it?’
Gerald nodded, but in a hopeless, dispirited way. ‘They just came in to the office and arrested me. They won’t tell me anything. I’ve got no interest in that sort of thing, and I’ve never looked at the sort of stuff they’re talking about. I don’t know what to do.’ His voice cracked, and his shoulders started shaking, as though he was sobbing. Hillary hugged him tightly, letting him lean against her. She patted his shoulders, and kissed his neck. The two detectives stood back, waiting patiently. Eventually, though, Detective Holstein coughed artificially.
‘Time to get moving,’ he said.
Hillary gave one last hug and released him. He turned to leave with the detectives.
The house on Gibbins street was unnaturally quiet, Hillary thought. Ridiculous, really, because having Gerald locked up in the remand centre was no different, during the day at least, to having him at work all day. It must be, she decided, something within herself that made her more conscious of the changes. The idea that Gerald might never come back lingered in the dark recesses of her mind, and though she refused to consider the idea, a warmth somehow attached itself to the possibility. She had given up her own career when she first became pregnant, a career which had, until then, seemed the most important thing in her life. She had struggled, when Nicholas had arrived, not to blame him for relegating her to the life of a home-maker, while Gerald sailed gleefully on, his career blossoming.
She was surprised on the Saturday when a team of police investigators arrived at nine thirty with another warrant, bent on searching the house and gardens thoroughly. Indignant, Hillary read the warrant from beginning to end, looking up to question the team leader once or twice about the detailed meanings of particular words or phrases. The warrant gave the search team the right to tear the house apart if they chose, in the search for further evidence of Gerald’s crimes.
After three hours she was given a second receipt, and she saw that this time they were taking a small thumb drive inscribed with the logo of Gerald’s company, two filing cabinets and a number of magazines they had discovered in various places around the house.
The search team had been scrupulous in their efforts to leave the house as they had found it, but nevertheless it took Hillary most of the remainder of the day to replace things in their proper positions, to adjust the chairs in the dining room, and remove a peculiar powder that they had sprayed on many surfaces, both vertical and horizontal, in virtually every room. The search for fingerprints that had required this powder seemed rather ridiculous to Hillary, but she was aware of her ignorance when it came to police investigations.
Gerald was sunk deeply in despair when she visited him at the remand centre on the following Sunday morning. He was dressed in a shapeless green tracksuit, and on his feet he wore rubber thongs. A large bruise was forming on his right cheek. He slumped at the table that stood bolted to the floor between them, his head resting on his arms, his face turned away from her. She thought he was crying quietly. She put her hand on his head. ‘Are you alright, Gerald?’
Gerald shrugged, but didn’t answer her.
‘Gerald, what has happened to you?’
There was no response.
She shook his shoulder. ‘Gerald, you mustn’t just slump there like that. You have to tell me what has happened. I still have no idea what this is all about.’
Gerald rolled his head to face her. Tears were streaming down his face, snot was running from his nose. He looked at her balefully for a moment or two, then sighed loudly and pushed himself to a sitting position. He took several deep breaths, then dragged his sleeve across his face. He looked truly dreadful.
‘What has happened,’ he said slowly as though talking to a child, ‘is that I have been beaten up. At every opportunity I am hit and kicked. No-one is doing anything to stop it. I have asked for protection, and I’m told they are considering it. I believe this is normal behaviour towards paedophiles.’ He stopped and sobbed, dropping his head.
‘But you’re not a paedophile,’ Hillary exclaimed. ‘You’re not, are you?’
He looked at her, and his look told her everything: even she had had to ask.
‘Of course you’re not,’ she said. ‘And we’re going to prove it.’
‘How?’ he asked.
‘Well, they’ll have no evidence.’
‘So why do you think I’m here?’
She stared at him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘They have evidence, apparently loads of it. I have no idea where it comes from, but they clearly believe they have quite enough evidence to convict me.’
‘What sort of evidence?’
‘Photos, videos, receipts from membership fees at a couple of on-line paedophile clubs, that sort of thing.’ He sounded resigned, exhausted.
‘And they were on your computer?’
‘That’s what they say.’
Hillary’s face showed shock. It didn’t look at all hopeful for Gerald.
Gerald was released on bail after two weeks. His company suspended him on full pay. It was like the very worst sort of leave. He found himself sitting morosely in the garden, or slumped in front of the TV. Hillary kept out of his way for the most part, but began to find his presence at home a little irksome.
‘Why don’t you get some exercise, Gerald? Go to the gym? Go for a walk, or maybe a swim. I’m sure you’d feel much better for it.’ It was getting her down, having him always around the house, silent, brooding.
But Gerald wouldn’t. His case had been in the newspapers, and even on the local TV news, a blurring of his face doing little to hide his identity. Knowing that he was innocent was no protection from the intense shame he felt. He certainly had no intention of parading in public.
He puzzled endlessly about how that dreadful material had appeared on his computer. He assumed that someone had deliberately targeted him, but why, and how had it been achieved? He drew up lists of people who could possibly hold some sort of grudge against him, but it was a very short list, and seemed completely implausible. Beside which, how could someone else get that material onto his computer? He had no idea.
Nick, their son, had stayed with them for a couple of weeks during that breakup with his wife, the delightful Angela. Nick had used the computer while he was with them. But he couldn’t bring himself to accuse Nick of downloading that stuff, and anyway, how could he have used Gerald’s credit card to pay for those memberships? Again, he had no idea.
Nevertheless, he called Nick soon after the evening news when he knew Nick would have arrived home from work. The delightful Angela answered. Gerald was really fond of Angela, and had been gratified when, after a couple of weeks’ separation, their marriage had re-started on a more sensible footing. Angela, despite herself, was embarrassed when she realised who was calling, and quickly handed the phone to Nick, who raised his eyebrows as Angela handed him the telephone.
‘Hi Dad,’ he said cheerfully. ‘How are you doing?’
‘Not very well, Nick,’ Gerald said truthfully. ‘There’s a whole lot of stuff I’d like to discuss with you, Nick. Any chance you could come over some time this weekend?’
Nick didn’t seem very keen. ‘Well, I’ve got a hell of a lot on this weekend, Dad. How about you drive over, and we’ll give you lunch on, say, Saturday?’
The last thing Gerald wanted to do was to show his face outside the house, but Nick was adamant that he was too busy to come over himself unless it was a matter of life and death. Angela was signalling wildly that no, she didn’t think Saturday lunch was good thing, and eventually Nick relented. ‘Okay, Dad, but it won’t be until Sunday, okay?’
‘I’m in serious trouble here, Nick, and I need to ask you a dreadful question.’ Gerald paused. They were in the garden, sitting at the table on the paved area beside the pond. It was a beautiful morning, and the last thing Gerald wanted to do was to ruin it. But the question had to be asked. And answered.
Nick guessed immediately what the dreadful question was going to be, having realised right at the start of the whole, ghastly business that in all probability he and his father were the only ones who could have accessed the computer. He composed his face carefully and was about to answer, but his father held up his hand.
‘Please, it’s not that I doubt you, it's not that I think that it’s your fault, and the last thing I want is to cause a rift between us.’ His voice broke, and his lip trembled.
Nick looked at his father. Gerald looked ten years older than when he had last seen him. In fact, he thought, he looked haggard, sick, shrunken. ‘It’s okay, Dad. Your question is obvious, and I’ll save you the embarrassment. You want to know if it was me that downloaded that stuff. Well, I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t. It has never interested me at all, and anyway I wouldn’t be so stupid. I know these things are monitored. I know, and so should everybody else, that the Federal Police keep a 24/7 watch on all those sites, and they know exactly who clicks on to them.’
‘I didn’t know that, Nick’
‘Well you should have. But there’s something else I will own up to, and that is that I did surf to a few porn sites while I was staying here. Well, quite a few, actually.’ He had been dreading having to own up to that, but in the event it hadn’t been so hard; he went on more confidently. ‘But they weren’t child porn sites, though I have to say some of the legal porn sites sail pretty close to the wind.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, about half the porn publishers like to pretend that a lot of the girls are only just legal, in terms of age. It’s like a selling point. So does that mean the majority of men lust after under-age girls, or what?’
‘Blowed if I know,’ Gerald said. ‘But the stuff the police showed me were just children, no doubt about that. Some hardly more than babies.’
‘Christ,’ Nick said.
They were silent for a few minutes, both men wondering why, why on Earth was this trade going on.
‘So no, Dad, it wasn’t me,’ Nick repeated eventually. ‘But if it wasn’t you, and it wasn’t me, who could have done it?’
‘I was hoping you’d have some sort of idea, seeing how you work with computers.’
‘So do you, Dad.’
‘Yes, but I just use them, not work on the technical side.’
Nick thought about it. ‘It’s not that hard to steal someone’s identity,’ he said. ‘I suppose it depends on how accurate you want the false identity to be; but if you really wanted to, and knew a bit about these things, it wouldn’t be too hard.’
‘So are you saying someone stole my identity, downloaded this rubbish and got membership to these sites...’
Nick was nodding.
‘But why?’ Gerald asked. ‘It just doesn’t make sense. There’s nothing to stop anyone doing all that themselves. They don’t need my identity to do it.’
‘Mmmm,’ Nick agreed. ‘But how about... has anyone tried to blackmail you over this?’
‘Blackmail? No. Why would anyone...’
‘Well, face it, Dad, look at the trouble this has caused. If someone had said, “Give me a thousand or I’ll go to the police with this.” See what I mean?’
Gerald examined this idea. ‘I see what you mean, but no-one has tried that. It’s not about blackmail.’
‘So... if it wasn’t you and it wasn’t me, and if it isn’t blackmail, where does that leave us?’
‘Someone... trying to... hurt me?’
They sat back and thought about it for a while. Eventually Nick said, ‘Who are your enemies, Dad?’
Gerald shook his head. ‘I’ve already thought of that,’ he said. ‘There might be one or two people who don’t like me all that much, but no-one who hates me enough to go through all this palaver.’
‘Jealousy? Who might want your job?’
Gerald looked at his son, and Nick could see that this possibility was something his father hadn’t considered.
Hillary opened the french windows. ‘Can I get you anything?’ she called.
Nick turned and looked at his mother. ‘We’re trying to work out who might have done this porn stuff, Mum. Why don’t you come and join us?’
Hillary shook her head in denial. ‘I’m much too busy for that,’ she said, and Nick looked at his father in surprise. Hillary turned sharply and slammed the door behind her.
‘What’s that about, Dad?’ he asked.
Gerald sighed. ‘It’s been pretty rough on her,’ he told his son. ‘She was incredibly supportive at first, like a lioness protecting her family. I think the police got fed up with her questions, and Roberts got to the point when he wouldn’t pick up the phone for her. But as time went by and all her investigations came to nothing, she seems to have washed her hands of the whole affair. Become quite snappy, actually.’
Nick put his hand on his father’s. ‘Everything seems to be falling apart,’ he said. ‘Seems like whoever did this is getting whatever it is he wants.’
Gerald shook his head, but in sorrow rather than in disagreement.
Ten days later Gerald was surprised to have another visit from the police, in the form of Detective Holstein. The weather was still perfect, so Gerald, unable to bring himself to be rude, even to a tormentor, invited him through the house to the garden.
The detective put Hillary’s computer satchel on the table. ‘We’ve finished with this,’ he said.
Gerald raised one eyebrow. ‘Took you long enough,’ he said.
The detective handed him a paper. ‘Just sign here,’ he said. Gerald did as he was asked, expecting the detective to leave.
Holstein seemed in no hurry to move, though. ‘Nice place you have here,’ he said, looking around. There was a small flock of goldfinches washing themselves in the pond, diving in and splashing vigorously before climbing out onto a rock and shaking themselves free of water. A pump worked to circulate the water from the lower pond to the upper one, and the sound of the small waterfall between the two was soothing. ‘I like the waterfall.’
Gerald nodded calmly. ‘That’s what most people say,’ he told the detective, and he wondered what he might be after.
‘We’ve, uh, got a bit of a problem with some of the evidence,’ He told Gerald.
‘What might that be?’
‘Well, timing, I suppose. What were you doing on Wednesday 23rd September, round seven pm?
Gerald looked at him, surprised. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘we’ve been through all this time and time again. You’ve got the whole thing down in triplicate.’ He found himself getting quite agitated; if he was going to jail over this mess, well, let them get on with on with it. There was nothing he could do about it.
The detective looked apologetic. ‘Mmm, I know. it’s just that, well, we need to verify something. Please, what were you doing on Wednesday the twenty-third of September, round seven pm?’
‘Well I can’t help you. You’ve already checked and double-checked. All the information I could possibly give you is in my diary, and you’ve been through that a thousand times.’
The detective lowered his eyes and shuffled his feet under the table. ‘Look sir,’ he said eventually, ‘I’m not denying any of that. It’s just that you might be able to do yourself a bit of good if you could help us with this.’
Gerald looked at him for a moment. ‘Right,’ he said, getting up. ‘I’ll just go and get my diary. Unless you’d like to come with me to the office?’
The detective waved his hand dismissively, and Gerald turned and went into the house. Despite his outward appearance, he felt the beginnings of a small excitement. What was this about? The detective seemed to have completely changed his attitude towards Gerald. What could this mean?
Holstein waited patiently as Gerald returned and thumbed through his diary. ‘When did you say?’
‘Wednesday the twenty-third.’
‘Wednesday was the twenty-second,’ Gerald told him, and showed him the page in the diary.
The detective squinted. ‘You’re looking at August,’ he pointed out.
Gerald moved forward a month, feeling rather stupid. ‘Around seven,’ he asked when he had found the right page. ‘I was in Penrith that night. I’d been there since Monday afternoon.’
‘Where did you stay?’
‘At the Criterion. The company has an account there, what with the factory being just down the road.’
‘And was anyone with you? Can anyone vouch for the fact that you stayed there all night?’
Gerald frowned. ‘Well, Harrison would have been there with me. I haven’t got any notes about that, but he would have been. We usually eat together in the restaurant, then maybe catch Lateline on the TV before bed. We get on pretty well together. I don’t remember exactly, but that’s what we usually do.’
Detective Holstein stared at Gerald for a moment, as though weighing things up. ‘Will you excuse me for a moment, sir?’ He stood, punched a few numbers into his phone, and walked away up the garden to stand beyond the pond in the shade of the big Jacaranda, talking as he did so.
Gerald sat, tight with expectation. It was clear that something was happening. For the first time since the whole ghastly affair had started he felt a glimmer of hope, the previous excitement settling to a conviction, perhaps the wrong word to use in these circumstances, that someone was believing him at last.
Detective Holstein smiled at him. He was not a handsome man, but his smile did much to transform his face so that he longer looked pugnacious, disbelieving. He sat once more at the garden table, replacing his mobile phone in the inside pocket of his jacket, and smiled again. ‘We’re beginning to discover evidence that leads us to change our view of this case, sir,’ he began carefully. ‘I’m not promising anything at this stage, but we’d like to go over everything again, starting from scratch.’
Gerald blinked. ‘From scratch?’ Oh no, he thought, this was just too much. ‘You’d better tell me what this is about,’ he said.
Holstein cleared his throat. ‘We’ve realised that just one piece of evidence doesn’t fit properly. It’s a matter of places and times. It’s just possible that we’ve jumped to the wrong conclusion.’
The earlier elation disappeared, and Gerald suddenly felt exhausted, washed out. ‘So you want to start again from the beginning. Well, I suppose that’s better than nothing. I told you right from the start that I had nothing to do with it.’
The delightful Angela was there with Nick that evening, the air festive, Gerald beaming. Nick had brought champagne, several bottles of it, and Gerald had broken the habit of a lifetime, laughing and sipping away at his glass, allowing Angela to refill it from time to time. Harold Trusskiss, Gerald’s boss, had called around in the middle of the afternoon and he was still with them, clearly relieved that Gerald had been shown to be innocent of the charges, even if he had not yet been entirely exonerated by the Court. The solicitor, Roberts, was expected to join the party in a little while
Harold took Gerald aside. ‘This must have been hell for you, Gerry,’ he said. ‘Despite everything, all the years we’ve worked together, the abiding trust I’ve always had in you, well, it was impossible to ignore the charges after the Committal. I’ll always regret that I had to stand you down, but I hope you see the position the firm was in?’
Gerald glanced at him. The champagne was beginning to tell, and he was swaying just the smallest amount. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I understand all right. And I suppose that I’ll forgive you all after a while.’ Harold winced.
‘Hell of a position to be in,’ Gerald continued. ‘Glad it’s pretty much all over, eh?’
Harold smiled uncertainly. ‘I think you should take a month or so off, Gerry. Compassionate leave, call it.’ By then, he hoped, people would have forgotten the whole affair.
‘Happy to do that, Harry old boy,’ Gerald returned, and he tossed off the last of his champagne, clapping Harold on the arm. Harold hated the name Harry, and everyone knew it. He swallowed.
Gerald saw the look in his boss’ eye, and smiled to himself. ‘Mind you, I reckon six weeks would be more like it.’
Harold gulped. Gerald was making the most of his position, but there was nothing Harold could do, not without appearing ungracious. ‘Oh, certainly,’ he agreed. ‘And if there is anything else we can do...’
Gerald nodded and turned away, leaving Harold feeling as though he had come out of this exchange rather badly.
But Nick was tapping on the side of his glass, calling for attention. At the same time Roberts, the solicitor, arrived, and was shown in and introduced by Hillary. ‘I’m going to propose a toast,’ Nick said, ‘so perhaps you could all fill your glasses.’ Another bottle had to be opened, the cork hitting the ceiling and rebounding to hit Harold on his balding head. There was laughter all round, and Nick had to call for silence again.
‘This is for Gerald, my Dad. He’s been through hell these last couple of months, and it’s only by chance and the, shall we say, unusual diligence of our friendly local detectives that he has been cleared of suspicion. There was never any doubt in my mind, and I’m sure the same can be said of everyone here.’ There was an uncomfortable shuffling around the room, and even the delightful Angela lowered her eyes. Hillary turned abruptly and left the room, slamming the door behind her. Nick was clearly surprised, and his eyes travelled in question from the door to his father, who looked after his wife’s departure with obvious mystification.
‘Anyway,’ Nick continued after a lengthy pause, ‘let’s hope that’s all behind us now. The toast is ‘Freedom’.
Gerald immediately raised his glass and shouted ‘Freedom’ very loudly, then tipped his head back and gulped the fizzy wine in one mouthful.
‘Freedom,’ shouted everybody, and the room was full of laughter again.
In the kitchen the delightful Angela found Hillary leaning over the sink, her head lowered, her shoulders raised. There was no doubt that Hillary had heard her enter the kitchen, but she showed no sign of it. Angela stood behind her and cautiously raised her hand to Hillary’s shoulder. ‘Are you alright?’ she asked.
Hillary didn’t reply, but her rigidity gave its own answer. Angela could feel a vibration, and it was clear that Hillary was, for some reason, under tremendous tension. Slowly she slid her arm over the older woman’s back and turned her towards herself. Hillary allowed herself to turn, but her head remained down, her chin tucked to her collar-bone. Angela managed to get her other arm around her mother-in-law, and held her tightly. It was clear that words would be useless. She caressed Hillary’s back with both hands, and began a slight rocking motion, which, after a time, seemed to calm her.
The kitchen door flew open, and with it came a burst of noise from the living room. It was Roberts, the solicitor. He held up an empty water jug as though to explain why he was there, but quickly realised that just then was not, perhaps, the best time to interrupt. He ducked away apologetically, closing the door behind him quietly.
Hillary raised her head, shrugging off Angela’s arms, wiping a tangle of hair from her eyes. There was a new determination in her eyes, and she turned to the sink and splashed some water on her face. Angela looked at her back. ‘Okay?’ she asked.
Without turning, Hillary gave a short, derisive nod. Angela moved towards the door. As she grasped the doorknob, Hillary spoke. ‘He should never have got off so easily,’ she said as though to herself.
Angela turned. ‘What?’
Hillary busied herself at the sink. Angela watched her for a moment or two, then returned to the living room, unsettled.
Gerald always called her ‘The delightful Angela,’ though never to her face. She was indeed delightful. Taller than Nick by a centimetre, she stood out in any crowd. Thick, lustrous hair cascaded over her shoulders, rather like those delicious models in shampoo advertisements. Her skin was clear and dark, as though she had returned a month before from a holiday in, perhaps, the West Indies. Her body, in every respect, was flawless. It was not only Nick who thought she was marvellous.
As she leaned forward to remove her tights that night, she had an unusually worried expression on her face. ‘She said he didn’t deserve to get off,’ she told Nick. Nick was pulling back the duvet, but he stopped and looked at her.
‘Didn’t deserve it?’ he asked. ‘You sure you heard her properly?’
‘She was shaking. No, that’s not right; she was quivering. I had my arms around her. I had just moved away, and she said those words. Almost as though she had been speaking to herself.’
They thought about it. ‘Well, those weren’t her exact words. She actually said ‘He should never have got off so easily.’
Nick slid into the bed and pulled the duvet up over his shoulders. ‘Wonder what that was about,’ he said.
‘It was bloody odd,’ Angela said. ‘The whole kitchen felt as though it was full of... hatred.’
Nick looked at her, amazed. ‘That sounds a bit extreme,’ he said. ‘You sure you’re not making too much of it?’
Angela shook her head, the gleaming waves of her hair reflecting the bedside lights. Nick felt himself stir, aroused as he was every night as they prepared for bed. Nothing was going to happen tonight, though, he knew. He rolled over and reached for his book.
It was Appleby who brought Gerald’s computer back, and some time had elapsed since they had declared him free of suspicion. Gerald’s attitude towards the police, both Holstein and Appleby but also the police in general, had changed dramatically. He had, understandably, regarded them as the implacable enemy, an enemy that had proved impossible to influence, impossible even to interest in his view of the accusations; but since he had moved out of their focus he fancied they were his allies, or perhaps even his disciples.
He felt he could teach them a thing or two, and they in turn had begun to listen politely when he advanced any of his many theories.
Appleby placed the two suitcases containing all the material the police had confiscated on the floor in Gerald’s office, and waited while Gerald signed the receipts that had accompanied the suitcases. ‘I’d rather you went through the items, sir,’ Appleby told him.
But though he had flipped open the suitcases, the number of items in the cases daunted him. ‘I don’t think I’ll have any complaints,’ he told Appleby. Though a number of weeks had elapsed, he still retained the euphoria he had experienced when first exonerated, especially when police matters were in hand. He signed the receipts with a flourish, and handed them to Appleby.
Appleby seemed to be in no hurry to leave, though he appeared to have nothing further to say. Gerald hummed and hahed for a while, but in the end felt he had no other option than to offer the detective some refreshment. ‘We’re in the garden,’ he said. ‘Would you like to join us?’
Angela, Nick and the children were at the table beside the pond, the children kneeling on the rocks tickling the goldfish with stalks of grass. Angela had not met the detective, and had to be introduced; Hillary, meanwhile, left the garden to prepare a tray of tea, coffee and biscuits.
‘It’s actually a bit, uh, tricky,’ Appleby began as soon as he was seated, addressing them all. ‘As you know, we came to the conclusion that it couldn’t have been you when the timing of a small number of downloads didn’t fit with your alibis.’
Nick nodded, and Angela paid close attention. ‘There are techniques, of course,’ Appleby continued, ‘where a third party some distance removed can take control of your computer and carry out any number of transactions in your name.’ Nick had explained these scenarios to his father some time ago, so Gerald was able to nod wisely.
‘And of course, the wireless network at this house makes it even easier. However, the question of motive still came into it, so we were eventually able to discount this sort of attack.’ He drew a deep breath as he went on.
‘We can be pretty sure, then, that the person who accessed these paedophile sites did it from here, in this house. You have proved, Mr. Ashton, that you weren’t here on at least one occasion to do that accessing. As no-one else was here at those times, we can draw only one conclusion.’
Angela looked at Nick, stunned. ‘Surely,’ she said, ‘you’re not suggesting...?’
Appleby coughed apologetically. ‘No, no, of course not. We’ve already excluded your husband for the same reasons we excluded Mr. Ashton. He wasn’t here when most of the contacts were made.’
‘But that means...’ Angela began.
‘Let’s just say we’re not investigating this affair any further,’ Appleby said. ‘We believe it could be more of a medical nature than a criminal one.’
The screen door was pushed open, and Hillary appeared in the French doors with a tray. She noticed immediately that everyone was looking at her in shocked silence, and stopped. ‘What?’ she said.