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"Journalists on public interest investigations have to use a certain amount of guile." - David Leigh, Guardian investigations editor

 

[2004]

 


MCQUEEN INQUEST BEGINS AMIDST FRESH RECRIMINATIONS
By Della Smith

A high-profile inquest into the death of barman Freddy McQueen at a 2001 demonstration in London began under a cloud today, after members of McQueen's extended family attacked the conduct of the Metropolitan Police in an interview given to the Daily Star. Three years on from the incident which sparked a national debate about crowd control tactics, there is still no consensus on precisely how a healthy young man exercising his right to assemble and protest came to lose his life that day...

 

Della exhaled slowly and cracked her knuckles. "Okay, I'm done. Phil, it's with you."

Her voice cut easily through the relative quiet of the newsroom. She'd never worked at a paper with normal hours, but it was so late that most of the nice, sane, non-workaholic employees of the Herald had long since buggered off back home.

"Thanks, Della. Cameron wants to see you when you've got a moment."

Fortunately for her, the list of nice, sane, non-workaholic people around here did not include her boss, who was determinedly staring at a stack of paperwork as if it could come to life and sign itself. When Della cleared her throat, he looked up at her as if she was a lifeline.

"Della! I'm an old fart. I'm allowed to spend Friday nights at work. What's your excuse?"

Della shrugged. "I've got a big story going. Besides, Dan's picking the pub this week. The last place he dragged us to got busted for health and safety issues two weeks later."

"You know, I think he might be doing that on purpose," Cameron said dryly. "But enough about my idiot son. How's the big story?"

Della thought of the phone number burning a hole through the pocket of her coat. "Getting bigger. Cameron, can you spare Cal? I think we need to dig into this."

"If there's anything worth writing, by all means. I trust your judgement. Just promise me you're not fishing."

"I'm not. I've got something going, if it pans out we're looking at something much bigger than a dead man."

Cameron chuckled. "A dead man's plenty big. Now go away, have a nice evening."

 

*

 

She'd been worried about Cal after the mess with Stephen Collins, expecting - she wasn't entirely sure what. Alcoholism, maybe. Depression. Anything but how he'd chosen to deal, which was to work like a maniac.

It made sense, in a dreadful way. Cal had wrecked relationships and driven himself to the edge of a breakdown in pursuit of the truth, all in the name of his work. If the work wasn't all important, then what had he done it all for?

Sometimes when Della looked up from her computer and saw the dark circles under Cal's eyes, she did wonder.

Speak of the devil -

"You look chipper this morning," he said, depositing a steaming coffee cup on her desk and leaning against a precariously stacked mountain of papers.

"You don't. Hangover?" He nodded, wincing at the motion. "Want some aspirin?"

"No, thanks, the coffee'll help. Cameron said you asked for me?"

"Yeah, I did. Did you try looking into the McQueen inquest?"

Cal had gone freelance as a result of the Collins story and never looked back. There was a considerable office pool on why Cameron hadn't hired him back properly after the huge success of said story, but the people in the know weren't talking, and the people who could more or less guess - Della, Dan, Helen, and Pete - didn't know how to say it. Which was quite some irony for a group of award-winning journalists.

It was easier to think that Cal's new productivity was a result of getting paid for each piece of work. Probably easier on Cal, too, and he did thrive with a greater degree of freedom.

Cal nodded. "Bloody circus, it's all been picked over, no fresh meat left. Man's been dead for three years."

"I've got a source claiming they have a lead, something the inquest hasn't got." Della stuck her hands in her jacket pockets and grinned. "Something that'll blow everything they've got out of the water."

Cal raised an eyebrow, the picture of cool disinterest, but she could tell he was hooked. "The catch here being?"

"They want money, and I want to make sure they're not full of shit first."

A strangely furtive look came over Cal's face. He glanced around the office and lowered his voice. "We need to talk to Dan."

"Why? I thought he was busy with the Met corruption beat."

Cal looked even more conflicted, even as he came to a decision. "He knows this case. I'm going to ask Cameron to bring him in."

 

*

 

They found Dan having a pint with a source in one of his more respectable regular haunts. When he waved them into a booth, his smile was just a little hectic.

"Well, hello. What new and exciting job have you got for me?"

Della couldn't help smiling back. "How do you know we're here about a story?"

Dan tilted his head, alcoholic haze gone in an instant, his gaze going sharp and thoughtful. "The two of you, looking like the cat that just ate the canary? Are you kidding me?"

"Dan, it's about the Free UK protest back in 2001," Cal said, again with that odd hesitancy. "You remember."

Dan's customary smile flickered off - only for an instant, but Della caught the change with the ease of long practice at reading faces. "Sure. How could I forget?"

 

[2001]

 

Dan liked to say it was love at first sight, with the kind of wicked laugh that only a really good inside joke could inspire.

Truth is, he met Kerry's eyes across a crowded street - full of angry, scared, screaming students getting penned in by riot-shield-wielding police - and she'd looked happy to be there. When they collided, they'd reached out for each other at the same time, and never stopped holding hands until the police let them through the cordon.

Then she'd beamed at him like being threatened with batons was great fun and asked hey, why haven't I seen you at any of the meetings before? I'd have remembered you for sure. The warmth and unabashed interest in her gaze made him honest; he said actually, I'm a journalist at the Mail, something like that, and she'd punched him.

And that was how Dan met his wife. An innocent man had died that day, and knowing Kerry proved no end of trouble for his career, but he couldn't ever regret sneaking into the crowd for that protest.

 

*

 

Three days later, he was having a pint in a pub just around the corner from the site of the protest (and unfortunate death-by-protest, as everyone and their mother now knew), looking for eye-witnesses, when he ran into Cal McCaffrey.

"Hey, aren't you - "

Cameron's kid, McCaffrey was probably going to say, and he couldn't bear that.

Dan stuck out a hand and gave the man his brightest smile. "Dan Foster, over at the Mail. I've heard a lot about you, Mr McCaffrey."

McCaffrey raised his eyebrows, even as he took the offered hand and shook it. "What does Cameron think about you working for that lot?"

"Hey, I didn't exactly have a choice," Dan said, as lightly as he could. "One of my lecturers had a friend here, got me in when nowhere else would take me."

There was nothing wrong with starting at the bottom (read: bottom-feeding) rung of the food chain. Everybody had to find an in somewhere.

"Cameron didn't offer?"

Dan laughed so hard he almost knocked over his Carling, and several of the grumpy looking old men sitting near the bar turned to stare. "You don't know my dad very well, do you?"

"Wow, forget I said anything," McCaffrey said, putting a hand up. "Anyway. You found anyone to talk to around here?"

Dan leaned closer, waited for McCaffrey to do the same, and lowered his voice. "Would I tell you if I did? Kidding, kidding. I'm not officially on this beat. Bit too big for my little brain to handle, apparently."

The corners of McCaffrey's mouth turned up. "Why're you here, then?"

"Call it curiosity. So, you want a hand?"

"If you've got anything, sure."

Something about the way McCaffrey said those words made it impossible to keep his mouth shut. Dan should have known better than to let it get his back up, he was too old to get riled up by people doubting him, and yet.

"I might be able to get in touch with someone from Free UK who was there."

There was no might about it. He'd gone back to Kerry's flat with her after they cleared up the whole 'tabloid scum' misunderstanding (although it wasn't really a misunderstanding, if he was honest, and Dan was hardly ever that if he could help it). They'd had fantastically adventurous sex, and she'd kicked him out in the morning with an invitation to meet at her local pub and play a few rounds of pool the next night.

She'd almost punched him again after two games of pool. Turned out her spirit of fair play was offended by his blatant cheating. Then they'd gone back to his run-down flat in Camden, split a bottle of wine and watched the Arsenal game.

By Dan's standards, it almost qualified as a serious relationship. And therein lay the problem. He liked her. He liked her a lot. Whatever his dad said about his standards, the idea of using her for what would probably end up being a story about scary rioting anarchists in the Mail didn't sit well with him.

At least McCaffrey wasn't after that kind of story.

"Dan, I promise you, I'm not trying to screw you or your source over. Work with me."

McCaffrey would be one hell of a liar if he could project that level of sincerity all the time.

"I...I'll need to talk to my source first."

 

*

 

It turned out that Kerry was more than willing to give her (and by extension, the NGO's) side of the story to a reputable paper, which was good for McCaffrey but not so good for Dan's ego. The matter of the protest was shaping up to be a thorny one, with the police and the protesters blaming each other for Freddy McQueen's death.

When McCaffrey asked Kerry if she'd seen anything weird happen around McQueen before he collapsed, she gave him the most steady and convincing no he'd ever seen from a source. Dan knew she wasn't telling the whole truth, but that was only because they'd spent the past two weeks practically glued to each other, and he was always creepily good at tells.

He spent a day agonising over whether to call her on the denial and went through half a bottle of whiskey without ever coming to a decision. Well, one that he could remember, at any rate.

 

*

 

The next morning he had a early meeting with David, his least favourite of the sub-editors, which was doubly unpleasant with an enormous hangover.

"I notice you've been slacking off this week."

"Looking into the McQueen protest death story. I think it could be big," Dan said quietly, wishing he could insist and knowing that he couldn't.

David smirked. "That's right, Peter told me you were banging one of the protesters."

Fucking Peter, could never keep his fucking mouth shut. "None of your business."

"Listen, Dan. Have your fun if you want, as long as you either get me something fast or do your actual job. You're good on scandals, but don't go getting too big for your breeches."

Dan narrowed his eyes. He thought he knew what David was actually saying, and the broadening smirk on the man's face backed it up, but there was no way -

"Wait. Run that by me again."

"Wouldn't be the first time you slept with a source."

Dan pulled on one of his brightest smiles. "There are some things even I won't do for a story."

He'd gained a good poker face from years of listening to family arguments at the dinner table, but David hadn't survived to become somebody at the Mail by being dense, and whatever he saw in Dan's expression made his smirk falter.

"Dan, listen - "

"No, you listen. I don't fuck for pay." Dan paused. Tilted his head thoughtfully, leaned closer over the desk, lowered his voice. "Anyway, you're not paying nearly enough."

Looking back, that was the beginning of the end.

 

*

 

The obligatory awkward Sunday dinner with mum and dad didn't help, either.

"God, you idiot," Cameron said. "Is this fling really worth your career?"

Dan stood up and walked out.

(In retrospect, it had been an overreaction. His dad had seen him go through a string of relationships before he'd hit eighteen and get associate professors into trouble at uni, but he'd never seen Dan be serious about someone. He'd probably assumed it was impossible.)

 

*

 

"Got a smoke?"

"I've got a whole pack if you can get me a chat with someone else from Free UK," McCaffrey said, grinning his fake-harmless grin.

"I'm afraid I've taken you as far as I can on this story, Mr McCaffrey. You're on your own now." Dan paused, turned his own smile way, way up. "Can I still have that cigarette?"

McCaffrey rolled his eyes even as he was holding it out and offering Dan his lighter, exasperated amusement written all over his face.

(People have been giving Dan that look since he was old enough to remember, usually accompanied by giving him what he'd been wheedling them for.)

"Don't you ever want more than what they've offered you? There's more to life than chasing stories about Premier League players having gang-bangs."

Dan took a quick drag of his cigarette to disguise the way his face wanted to fall, made his voice nonchalant. "Onwards and upwards, Mr McCaffrey. Onwards and upwards."

McCaffrey wasn't fooled for a second.

"Just remember, Dan. There's always a bigger fish."

 

[2004]

 

"That story made me lose my job at the Mail," Dan finally said. "It took a while to happen, but that's what started it."

Della felt her eyes widen. She hadn't known Dan all that well before the Collins business; they'd crossed paths a few times but never worked together, and he'd always seemed perfectly suited to and perfectly happy with a life of muckraking.

(Much as she'd like to deny it, digging for scandal was a skill-based job, and not everyone had the instincts.)

Beside her, Cal didn't look surprised at all. Smug, more like it. "I did tell you."

"...that wasn't actually the problem. But you were right. I should have said it before." Dan shrugged, smiled more easily. "So, you wanted to run something by me?"

Della leaned forward. "I've got a guy at the General Medical Council who says the doctor who did the post-mortem on McQueen was crooked. And he says he can put us in touch with another pathologist who examined McQueen who'll back him up, and the second doctor thinks blunt force trauma was definitely a major factor."

If her fellow reporters were cats, their ears would be upright and twitching. "So why hasn't he gone public?" Cal asked.

Della felt her smile go crooked. "He wants cash. I checked, he's already shopped this around to a few red-tops, none of them bit."

"Too much work for uncertain reward," Dan said. "That's how it'd look to them. You know, all the Free UK guys I talked to always swore it was the cops' fault that McQueen died."

"They would say that, wouldn't they?" Cal replied, dismissive, and Della bit back her retort when she saw the way he was staring at Dan, who had straightened up in his seat and was staring back.

"Kerry wouldn't lie to me."

Cal's smile went just a little twisted. "So what does she know that she wouldn't tell me?"

Dan's gaze dropped to the table top and he bit his lip in lieu of an answer. Which was pretty telling in itself, really.

"Dan, if there's anything, anything at all that might help - " Della said, and only realized when the words were out of her mouth that she sounded like she was talking to a source. Soothing, coaxing.

Cal's voice sounded especially harsh in contrast, the matter-of-fact chill obvious. "Ask yourself what you're in this for. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."

None of them needed to be reminded of the results of their award-winning journalism last year. When Dan finally glanced back up, the look he gave Cal was edged with sympathy.

"I - can I get back to you? I need to talk to my wife."

 

*

 

Her phone rang at five in the morning.

"What?"

"Not a morning person, are you?" Dan said, sounding disgustingly cheerful.

Della made a sound that was perilously close to a snarl. "I hope for your sake that this is good news."

"How could you doubt me? Get Cal out of bed, go chase down your source. Pay whatever it is he's asking."

Della was suddenly wide awake. "Why should I do that?"

"Because I'm going to get you something big to corroborate what your guy is claiming. Meet me at my local around nine."

"Try not to get too pissed to work before we get there."

Dan laughed. "I make no promises."

 

*

 

Cal wasn't much of a morning person either, and it was much funnier to hear the 'dangle news-bait in front of investigative journalist and wait for them to bite your hand off' effect from the other side. Half an hour later, they were sitting in a corner booth in a cosy Islington breakfast diner, waiting for their man from the GMC to show.

Brian Whitfield was exactly as her friend had described - tall, skinny, ginger and twitchy as fuck had been her exact words - and the nervous way he looked around the diner, clearly trying and failing miserably at being inconspicuous struck her as almost - adorable.

It certainly eased her fears of being played. Whitfield looked like he couldn't lie his way out of a paper bag.

She nudged Cal under the table, "let me do most of the talking. You'd spook him," and waved him over to their booth with a smile.

"Brian? I'm Della Smith, and this is my colleague Cal. I heard you have a lot to tell us."

"Yeah, I - have you got the money?" Whitfield said in a hushed voice.

Della nodded, inclining her head at Cal. "Steph told me you wouldn't screw me. That coffee's for you, by the way."

It wasn't particularly good, as Della and Cal had discovered for themselves, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

Whitfield took a large gulp. "Thank you. You can trust me. I wouldn't - I've never done this before."

"That's okay. I don't bite. So, you said you had papers for us?"

Whitfield reached down, set his backpack beside him in the booth and started to open it. Stopped, and looked back up at Della. "Show me. The money, I mean."

Della shrugged. "All right. Cal?"

Whitfield's pale eyes were fixed on Cal's hands as they took out his wallet, counting out an eye-wateringly large number of bills. He started when Della spoke again.

"Now you."

The backpack was full of papers. Whitfield set a slim file down on the table top.

"The original post-mortem by Doctor Andrea Long."

Another slim file.

"The second post-mortem by Doctor Ryan Bridge."

Another, much bigger file.

"Doctor Bridge's disciplinary record."

Della let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Cal, give the man his money."

 

*

 

They were so caught up in going through the documents that 8PM came and went before either of them noticed, and then they were almost late meeting Dan.

"I'm sure he wouldn't mind being abandoned if he knew what we were abandoning him for," Cal said wryly.

Della snorted in response, but privately she agreed. Whitfield, for all his incompetence at cloak and dagger - he'd never make it in MI5, that much was clear - had given them a goldmine. He could have fleeced them for far more money and Della and Cal would have gritted their teeth and paid up.

Doctor Andrea Long, who had carried out the preliminary post-mortem, had a very different opinion of what had killed Freddy McQueen than Doctor Bridge, whose report the Met had relied upon when they'd decided that no internal investigation was necessary.

They had enough for a story already, even without whatever Dan was up to, which turned out to be chatting up an intimidating-looking young man with bleach-blond hair, hunched over the bar in a battered leather jacket.

"Della, Cal, this is Steve. Steve, my mates from work. Don't be a stranger." Dan's grin was a little wobbly. He was either tipsy or working very hard at pretending to be. "Steve was just telling me about the day of the protest. Kerry said you were amazing."

Steve grunted, but the tips of his ears were going pink, and it wasn't at all cold in the pub. "Did what I could. You ask me, the cops are the biggest gang there is. What happened to Freddy McQueen could've happened to anyone."

"I know," Dan said, very sincerely. "I was there. Not close enough to see McQueen. But you - Steve, you saw it, didn't you? You've got proof."

He leaned forward, gave Steve a glittering, rapt look from underneath his dark lashes. The rest of the very noisy pub might as well not exist.

Steve was trying, very unsuccessfully, not to get flustered under the attention.

Well, I'll be damned.

Della held her breath. Beside her, Cal had gone still too.

Steve's hands tightened visibly around his drink. He swallowed hard, seemed to come to a decision. "So I - I've got pictures, yeah. Date stamps and everything. You can see one of the scum hitting the guy, right in the chest."

Dan's eyes widened almost comically. It didn't take him very long to recover, though - Della and Cal were still wearing identical expressions of shock when he got his grin back. "How much do you want for them?"

There was a certain look that sources always got when they were on the brink of giving in, and from what Della could see of Steve's downcast face, he wasn't there yet. "I...it's only - "

"You can trust us to keep our mouth shut," Cal said suddenly. "Ask Kerry."

"I wouldn't even be here if she hadn't - " Steve shook his head. "If Kerry and Dan think you're all okay, then I guess - but you can't tell anyone."

Dan nodded eagerly. "I promise."

"I'll sell you the pics, no problem, they're still in the SD card. It's just - the camera - "

Della finally understood. "That's not an issue. We don't care about that."

Steve's entire body seemed to sag against the bar. "Okay. Okay, then. How much?"

Behind him, Dan sketched her a salute.

 

*

 

" - I can't believe that was the issue. Dan, what kind of people do you associate with?"

Dan lifted his head from his desk and gave her a half-hearted glare. "Hey, we did get the pictures."

"For which we are all very grateful," Cal said dryly. "Come on, Della, don't tell me you've never stolen a digital camera and captured a major crime with it."

"Can't say I have. So. What now?"

They had the photos, five of them clear enough to be useful. Cal was going to do some legwork tomorrow, see if they could ID the copper who was snapped hitting McQueen in the chest with what looked like considerable force.

It was her favourite part of the process, the moment when the various pieces started to fall into place and she could almost glimpse the greater picture.

Cal ran a hand through his hair, rubbed at his eyes tiredly. "Talk to your copper. You trust him?"

"...yeah," Della said, thinking of the last time she'd seen DCI Bell. She'd been chasing the beginnings of the corruption story that Dan had ended up working on, and he'd stonewalled her like they'd never been menaced by a paid killer together. She hadn't been too inclined to be helpful after that.

Still, at least he'd give her a straight forward no if he couldn't help.

"Other police officers are in those photos," Cal said, frowning at the computer screen. "We need to get in touch with at least one. Even a denial is better than nothing."

"You're hoping Bell could help us ID them."

Would he? She honestly couldn't say. Even a determinedly upstanding cop might flinch at ratting out one of their own.

"Maybe," Dan murmured. He grinned suddenly. "Remember, Della. Flirty, but not too flirty. Cops are tough like that."

"Shut your mouth."

 

*

 

Bell came and took his smoke break with her without a fuss, which was always a good sign. He had the good cigs out and lit immediately, which was less good.

"So, you're talking to me again?"

The note of sarcasm in his gruff voice made her smile despite herself. "I'm putting you on probation."

"Which means you want something. Well?"

Della grinned up at him. "Recognise any of the cops in these pictures? I'll tell you up front, the ones I'm asking about aren't in trouble."

Bell looked at her for a long moment. Satisfied with whatever he found, he took the photos from her, and almost immediately pointed to one of the officers in the first one.

"I know her. That's Antonia Terry, from Hammersmith and Fulham."

"Did she ever talk to you about what happened the day of the Free UK protest in 2001?" Della said quickly, before she could second-guess herself.

Bell sucked in a breath, his grip on the stack of photos tightening. "Is that - I'm not going to say. You go ask her yourself."

"Thanks. Really, I mean it. You won't regret helping me."

"I hope not."

 

*

 

Cal called her when she was on the way to Fulham Police Station.

"I've got a name. PC Kenneth Hall, from Hammersmith and Fulham."

"Me too. PC Antonia Terry. She was standing so close, she ought to have seen it happen. I'm on my way to talk to her now."

"All right. Good luck."

Antonia Terry was a tall, middle-aged woman who looked like the perfect image of efficiency and friendliness in her uniform. Della could very easily picture her on a poster with some sort of community-friendly slogan. She didn't look like the type to suffer fools gladly either, so Della didn't try to tail her away from the station.

"Antonia Terry? Could I have a word? I promise I won't cut into your dinner break for too long."

Times like these her unthreatening stature and soft voice really worked for her. Terry looked her over once and started walking again, a little slower than before, so Della didn't have to strain to keep up. "Who're you?"

"I'm Della Smith, from the Herald. Constable Terry, is it true that you saw Kenneth Hall attack Freddy McQueen?"

Terry stopped walking and turned to face Della head-on. Her brown eyes gleamed in the fading light. "Who told you that?"

Della squared her shoulders. "We have proof that you were there when it happened."

"Fuck, I told them, I said - " Terry shook her head violently. "I recognised the dead guy in the papers, but when I tried to tell the higher-ups about what happened, I got stone-walled."

Della smiled. "Why don't we get some food, and you can tell me all about it."

 


"Mr Davidson, in light of all this new evidence, how do you feel about your original decision not to prosecute PC Kenneth Hall for the unlawful killing of Freddy McQueen?"

"Well, obviously we didn't have the full picture. I'm sure the inquest will be able to examine all the new information that's come to light since and reach a suitable conclusion."

"Mr Davidson, you say that you didn't have the full picture. How is it that a few journalists were able to unearth what the police with all their resources could not?"

"I'm not the best person to answer that question. Maybe sometimes it pays to be on the outside, looking in."

 

"Here's to a job well done."

Dan downed half his pint in one go, and Cal wasn't far behind. Della took a more moderate sip of her wine, and smiled.

"I don't know if we're done. Wanna know the real sting in the tail?"

Dan set his drink down very carefully. "Della..."

"How long were you going to keep this to yourself, Dan?"

"Keep what? Dan?" Cal said, very quietly.

That was the kind of tone she could stand never hearing in his voice again.

Della bumped his shoulder with hers. "Relax, it's not going to turn the entire story upside down. Our focus is the botched inquiry and the cover-up. But didn't you ever wonder about McQueen?"

"You mean - "

Dan downed the other half of his drink with a long-suffering sigh. "Freddy wasn't a protester. That's what Kerry didn't want to say. None of the Free UK guys had ever met him, he was just caught up in the police cordon that day."

"That's - "

"I know. Strange how these stories shake out sometimes, but that's sort of what I'm in this for. Speaking of - Cal, I think I owe you a pint."

"You owe me many pints, but what bought this one on?"

Dan's grin was so bright it made him look years younger. "As of this week, I'm a proper employee of the Herald. If it weren't for you, I'd never even have tried for life beyond the red-tops."

"Oh! Congratulations," Della said, even as she reeled from the wistful look Cal hadn't been able to hide, just for a moment. She wasn't the only one who noticed, either, if Dan's face was any indication. "Maybe someone else's overdue for a talk with Cameron too?"

"I don't know what you mean," Cal mumbled, trying and failing to hide a smile.

Dan rolled his eyes theatrically. "It can't be any more awkward than mine was."

It wasn't terribly funny, but they all laughed anyway.