Thirteenth in the Best Defence Series
What is justice? In Scotland it has come to be defined as someone being convicted of a crime. For the newspapers, a not guilty verdict is not seen as justice, merely the accused getting away with it. Only on the rarest of occasions does an acquittal make the front pages. Who wants to read about that? It’s why in the Sheriff Court, where more than 80% of the criminal business is conducted, court reporters stay away from trial proceedings. Why spend hours or days watching a trial, if at the end of it all some accused person walks free? Where’s the justice in that?
Of course, with the advent of social media, a person doesn’t even need to be convicted to be guilty; doesn’t even need to cross the threshold of a criminal court. If a pressure group or D-list celebrity accuses you of wrongdoing, you can kiss your career goodbye. Due process and the presumption of innocence left the building years ago, chased out by the blue tweety-bird. Doubts, reasonable or otherwise, no longer come into it. Twitter has spoken. So let it be written.
Another person seldom in any doubt as to the guilt of an accused was Livingston Sheriff Court’s very own Albert Vincent Brechin. A fine example of how if you don’t stick in at school you might end up a Sheriff.
‘Are you quite finished, Mr Munro?’ Brechin straightened his yellowing, horsehair wig and lowered his eyebrows at the young man in the dock. I’d already prepared my client for the fact that Sheriff Brechin didn’t hold trials: he held pre-sentencing hearings. ‘Stand up Mr Sneddon. Despite your solicitor’s frankly ludicrous attempts to persuade me that the standard of your driving fell short of dangerous, I find you guilty as libelled.’ He held out a hand in the direction of the Procurator Fiscal depute. ‘Schedule?’
‘The accused has no previous convictions, M’Lord.’
Brechin sniffed. ‘Very well. Is there anything that can be said in mitigation?’
To be fair, there wasn’t a whole lot. Charlie Sneddon was twenties, single, and an employee of funeral directors Falconer & Dundas; a family business that had been burying and burning the people of West Lothian for over sixty years. Formerly simply Falconer & Co., Walter Dundas had taken over the operation years ago when Ken Falconer had himself left to join the choir invisible. The reason Charlie found himself in the dock of the Sheriff Court was down to him borrowing one of the firm’s limos for the evening, driving it at light speed along Linlithgow High Street, and performing a handbrake turn at the Cross Well. It had happened at midnight with little traffic about, which I thought might give scope to argue it was merely careless and not actually dangerous. A careless driving conviction would avoid the otherwise mandatory twelve-month disqualification and requirement to re-sit the driving test. But the main reason I’d taken Charlie Sneddon’s Section 2 to trial was that had he pled guilty at the cited court, where the local and freelance press sat waiting for succulent morsels, the story of hearse-driver by day, boy-racer by night would have been too much for the Red Tops to resist and too much bad publicity for Falconer & Dundas to bear. As it was, I parted company with my newly fined and pedestrianised client in the atrium of Livingston Sheriff Court without a journalist in sight.
That had been early September. I’d put the young man out of my mind until his employer came to see me about a month later. Betty Dundas was a small, stout woman, somewhere north of fifty. She was softly spoken and always tremendously polite. A devotee of the sort of printed frocks that made her look like a well-stuffed cushion from a seaside boarding house, whenever Betty came to visit the spartan environs of Munro & Co., I felt I should be looking out the best China and scattering a few doilies around.
That Thursday was a typical autumn day in Scotland. A mid-morning cameo appearance by the sun, followed by a torrential downpour. Now Linlithgow High Street, more potholes than the Western Front, was basking in temperatures that could reach a balmy eight degrees in the shade. Mrs Dundas eased herself into the chair opposite and made herself comfortable before reaching into her handbag and sliding an envelope across the desk at me. ‘For all you did for Charlie,’ she said.
I lifted the envelope and looked inside at a bundle of notes. ‘What’s this?’
‘It’s a thousand pounds.’
I could see that. ‘Why?’
She smiled. ‘You’ve earned it.’ I hadn’t expected such generosity. Mrs Dundas had refused to cover her employee’s legal fees, and he’d had to apply for Legal Aid. ‘Like you promised, there wasn’t a word about what happened in the newspaper.’<
‘And you know why?’
I did. Business not being great and with more and more competition, as well as the fact he was not getting any younger, Walter Dundas had agreed to sell the family business to a nationwide operation interested in adding Falconer & Dundas to its empire. Their main concern was to retain the firm name for goodwill. Goodwill they were prepared to shell out good money for. Goodwill the Dundas’s had feared would quickly turn bad if news of speeding hearse drivers were made public.
As Betty went on to explain, Walter had recently suffered a stroke. With her husband hors de combat, Betty was left to deal with matters and ready to conclude missives on the sale. All very interesting I was sure, but not to me. I didn’t deal with commercial property transactions, not unless what was being transacted on commercial property involved a client of mine and a weapon. I expressed my thanks for the cash and hopes for Walter’s speedy recovery, whereupon Betty closed her handbag and looked like she might get up to leave. But she didn’t. Instead, she sat still for a moment or two before turning her plumply powdered face to me again.
‘There is just one tiny fly in the ointment,’ she said. ‘It’s something, if you have the time, I’d like your advice on.’
I smiled encouragingly. It’s hard not to smile when there’s an envelope of cash sitting in front of you.
‘I have… a body. A dead one,’ she clarified. ‘It’s in our basement.’
I didn’t think it was going out on a limb to assume a funeral parlour would have any number of stiffs on the premises, and thought, ‘And where should it be?’ a polite enough response.
‘Ideally? In a grave or an urn.’
It was an answer that didn’t really bring me any closer to why an undertaker would need advice from me on what to do with the recently departed.
Mrs Dundas did get to her feet this time, but only to make certain the door was closed. ‘I don’t know whose body it is or why it’s there,’ she said upon taking her seat again. I could see the strain on her face. She took a moment and cleared her throat before continuing. ‘At first, I assumed it was a Public Health funeral we’d been sent by the Local Authority. Sometimes when there’s no money or next of kin, Walter gets a call to collect a body from the hospital or wherever. Usually, he’ll arrange a cremation or burial on common ground with just staff present. The bill is sent to the Council.’
‘You’ll keep records of those types of referrals, surely?’
‘My husband is in hospital. He’s paralysed down one side and can’t talk. He doesn’t even recognise me. Walter handles the collections. I’ve checked and double-checked. The records show that every loved one we’ve received has been buried or cremated.’
It seemed to me that Mr Dundas must have fallen ill before he could complete the paperwork on a certain loved one. Then again, just how loved could that one have been if the relatives hadn’t started asking questions? ‘What’s the Council saying about it?’ I asked.
‘I phoned them without saying too much. I asked for a list of all the referrals we’d had in the past few months. There’s hasn’t been any. The last one was nearly two years ago.’
‘You’re bound to have other records, though - death certificates, a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death, even a quote for services not fulfilled.’
‘I’ve searched. We’ve taken on no new business since before Walter’s stroke. Our High Street premises are purely for meeting with the bereaved and discussing options. We haven’t stored anyone in the basement for... I don’t know how long. Not since we expanded the business. It’s only used for storing materials.’
I leaned back and rubbed my chin, hoping to give the impression that I was applying my razor-sharp legal mind to the problem of the body in the basement, but the only thought I could muster was what ultimately came out of my mouth. ‘How come you think I can help?’
Mrs Dundas glanced around as though someone might have sneaked into the room. ‘I thought…’ she said, her eyes never completely resting on mine, ‘that you could perhaps advise on how one could… get rid… I mean dispose of… it,’ she said without cracking her make-up. ‘Discreetly.’
I looked down at the envelope on the desk and played along. ‘I’m not an expert, but I suppose the first thing to do is identify the body and have the death registered, if it isn’t already. From the death certificate there are people, genealogists who will track down any relatives. All you need to do is apologise to them. They’ll understand in the circumstances, your husband having suffered a stroke and everything. Throw in a free funeral, and everyone’s happy. Well, not happy. Not Mr Dundas… or the bereaved, of course, but you know what I—’
‘If I don’t have a name…’ Mrs Dundas said slowly, like a woman who’d come in search of a unicorn and found a donkey with an ice cream cone stuck on its head, ‘how can I register the death? And what if there’s already been a funeral?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Thinking back to before his stroke, Walter hadn’t been himself for a while. What if… What if he wasn’t thinking straight and an empty casket has already been interred or cremated? That’s the only thing I can think must have happened. How will it look to the family if we have to do it all over again? And I can’t sell the business with an unaccounted-for body in the basement.’ Now we were coming to it. She sniffed. ‘This has all come about at a very inconvenient time. Can you imagine the publicity?’
I could. I could also imagine the reduction in the purchase price for the business, that is, if the pending sale went ahead at all.
‘And there’s no way you can hold off the transaction until your husband has recovered sufficiently to—’
‘The doctors aren’t optimistic.’
‘Then it’s definitely a tricky one,’ I said, trying not to screw up my face too much. ‘But I’m not really sure it’s something I can help with. Mistakes happen. If you come clean, I’m sure you’d be surprised at how understanding people can be.’
‘Not the people I’m dealing with.’ Betty’s bottom lip began to tremble. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. Walter has only been in hospital a few days and already the purchasers are coming up with all sorts of angles to drive the price down. My lawyer’s having a terrible time with them. They think with Walter off the scene I’ll be giving up the business anyway.’
‘And will you be?’
She pinched her nose and took a moment before replying. ‘Yes, but they don’t need to know that. The fact is the business hasn’t done well recently. We’re practically insolvent.’
‘Then why does anyone want to buy it?’ I asked.
‘All they want is the Falconer & Dundas name and the goodwill that comes with it. If this mistake comes to light, I might as well give the business away.’
Betty reached out and took one of my hands in hers. Her eyes were glistening. Tears threatened. ‘If only Walter was here, he’d know what to do,’ she sobbed.
Unwanted dead bodies were bad enough, but crying women… I put on my best wish-I-could-help-but-any-chance-you-could-leave-now? face and was about to stand and show Betty to the door, when this time from the depths of her handbag she excavated another, noticeably thicker, envelope.
I tore my eyes from the envelope to look at Betty. ‘I’m sorry…’ And judging by the size of the envelope, I truly was. ‘But I’ve absolutely no idea what you should do.’
‘I understand that,’ she said, edging the envelope ever closer. ‘But I was thinking, maybe, in your line of work, you would know someone who does.’