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‘It feels like you are watching me,’ Charlie said.
The man frowned. ‘Everyone gets watched. You’ve bought into it all, so the government knows everything about you. Where you shop, what you buy, what you think. Your legal system? It is built on lies. You know that though, that there is no search for truth, not ever.’
‘So what do you offer?’
A pause. ‘Something new, a fresh beginning, where we can look after ourselves, make our own rules. A new morality, that’s what we are.’
Charlie rolled his eyes. ‘I thought maybe you were different.’
‘Some hippy set thinking you can change society. We’ve been here before, but human nature ruins it every time.’
‘Not this time.’
The man looked at Donia, who smiled politely, and then turned back to Charlie. ‘Look at you, man. Dark suit. Tie. Shirt. You wear your hair long, but it’s a small protest, because you still follow the crowd. You’re scared. I can smell it, your fear. Of getting older, of your life. We have no fear. We are free.’
Charlie stepped closer. ‘Bullshit. You’ve been hanging around here all morning. We were burgled last night. Was that you?’
‘There are no boundaries.’
‘There are when I lock my office door. Do you want me to get the police?’
The man’s smile disappeared. ‘They mean nothing to me, because they don’t rule me. This society rules by consent. I’ve withdrawn mine, and so I’m not bound anymore.’
‘I’m sure they will find a way to bind you somehow.’
The man shook his head, his eyes narrowing. ‘Not this man. I’m free. Not ruled by you or those like you. But look at you, Mister Lawyer. You are all about the rules.’
Charlie looked at him, and then down at the group again. ‘I’ll leave you to your way, and you leave me to mine. That’s real freedom, isn’t it?’
He turned away, Donia alongside him, questioning why he had bothered to get involved, and carried on towards the office. He heard the group laugh as they moved away.
Charlie climbed the office stairs to the reception. Someone was coming out. Two men, both in trim dark suits, shirt and tie. He stepped to one side as they came towards him. They looked like money, but there was steel in their eyes. He knew that look. It was hardened criminality, not some professional caught on a speed camera.
Amelia was picking up clients like that, whereas Charlie’s congregation was filled with drunks and petty thieves, or the Saturday night fighters. The real criminals made demands he didn’t have the interest to meet.
He went to his own room first and dumped the files on his desk. Donia hovered near the door.
‘What now?’ she said.
He looked down at his files. There were letters to dictate, to confirm the outcome of the court hearings, but they could wait. The clock was working its way round to lunchtime, and so a quiet half hour would do no harm.
‘A coffee would be good,’ he said, pointing towards the kitchen.
Donia smiled, some disappointment in her eyes, but she went anyway.
Charlie fell back into the old armchair in the corner of the room. As he put his head back, he let the stresses of the morning wash over him. Someone had been into the office during the night and made an untidy search. What had they wanted? And the news about Billy Privett.
He didn’t open his eyes when heard the door to his office open. He knew it would be Amelia.
‘The glazier has been,’ Amelia said. ‘We need to get better security.’
‘If we keep netting clients like that, a bit of broken glass won’t be a problem.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The two men who just left. The big hitters. Dark suits. Bad attitude.’
Amelia faltered, and then said, ‘Just clients.’
‘Empires are built on people like them,’ Charlie said. ‘I salute you, and let God make Oulton a less safe place.’
Amelia didn’t respond, but she stayed in the room.
Charlie opened his eyes. ‘I’ve got some bad news on the murder as well,’ he said.
‘Murder?’ she said, and then, ‘Oh yes, that. What about it?’
‘We won’t get the suspect, if he’s caught,’ Charlie said. ‘The rumours are that the corpse is Billy Privett.’
She nodded but didn’t respond.
‘You don’t sound surprised,’ he said.
‘Rumours travel quickly,’ she said, although she sounded distracted. ‘Are there any suspects?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t get further than the courtroom.’
She turned and walked out of the room. No pleasantries. He looked out of the window instead. The view was the same as always. Slate rooftops. Telephone wires. He got to his feet and strolled to the glass. The cobbles were worn and streaked with engine oil, the street curving downhill. Charlie looked past all of that and watched the drift of the clouds. He could ignore the files for a moment.
Then something caught his attention. It was a white van further along the street, a logo on the side. It looked like it had just arrived, with two men behind it, one holding a camera.
He groaned to himself. The police had become less keen on passing information to the press since all the phone hacking stories, but the reporter at court had said the rumours came from the local paper, and so they were bound to spread. He left his room, almost knocking the coffee cup out of Donia’s hand as she brought it to him.
Charlie took it from her and went to Amelia’s room. She was standing at the rear window as he went in, looking out. She didn’t have the view that Charlie had, just the yard behind the kebab shop and a row of houses. She went to sit down at her desk.
‘So how do you feel about Billy Privett?’ he said.
‘Why should I feel anything?’ she said, although her tone was unconvincing.
‘Because there is some faint warmth to your blood, that he was a human being you came to know? Or maybe just because he can’t pay you any more money.’
‘He was a client,’ she said. ‘And that’s always been your problem, that you see them as friends, all these wasters.’
‘They are, a lot of them. I grew up in this town. I’m no better than them.’
‘Save your working class guilt, Charlie, because none of them give a damn about you. They would drop you in it quicker than they’d have your wallet.’
‘You’re all heart,’ he said. ‘You better get your sympathetic face ready though. You became Billy’s spokeswoman once he came into the money, and the press are outside.’
Charlie nodded. ‘Come on, take a deep breath and think like a real life person. Use words like “regret” and “sorrow”. Good soundbites.’
She scowled. ‘You know I can’t say anything, not without Billy’s consent.’
‘I don’t think he’ll complain too much,’ Charlie said. ‘Billy was good for you, although there is some irony in that someone involved in a high-profile death should end up dying prematurely.’
‘What, like karma?’ Amelia said, and then shook her head. ‘There are things you don’t know. He died an innocent man, you need to remember that.’
‘I’m a lawyer. You don’t need to feed me the line. Not being guilty is a long way from being innocent. A young woman died and he stayed quiet. He could have said something to help the police, even if he had no part in her death. His silence just made him look guilty.’
A look of irritation flashed across her face, but it was fleeting.
‘I’ll say it again,’ she said. ‘He died an innocent man.’
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