The Dwelling: a Charlie Zailer Christmas story

This story first appeared in The Spectator

Illustrated by James Weston Lewis

Charlie Zailer wasn’t sure if she’d won or lost. On the victory side of the equation, she’d managed to avoid spending Christmas Day with her sister, and she’d successfully blamed it on work. Her ‘Sorry, but I have to go in for at least a few hours’, delivered in a tone that suggested it was the fault of someone intransigent in a position of authority, had been accepted without question. On the defeat side, here she was: at work, by choice, with a cold steak-and-potato pasty in her bag as a Christmas dinner substitute, struggling to communicate with a stranger who’d judged her to be not worth speaking to. Was it her karmic comeuppance for avoiding her so-called loved ones at Christmas? If Charles Dickens had written her day, that was what this encounter would turn out to mean.
The woman standing opposite Charlie in the too-warm interview room had refused to sit, and was still wearing her coat to prove a point, though her cheeks grew pinker by the minute. She repeated her refrain line: ‘There must be a detective in the building.’ Charlie tried once again to steer her away from her obsession with the physical location of the nearest DC. ‘First you’ll need to tell me what the problem is. Then, if it turns out that we need…’ ‘It’s no offence to you,’ the woman interrupted. ‘I’m sure you’re great at your job, but this is something a PC wouldn’t know what to do with. Even a detective might not understand, but I think there’s a better chance. They must see and hear all kinds of… irregular things.’ She was in her mid-forties, Charlie guessed. Married: gold band on her wedding finger, topped by an engagement ring that looked like a battleship made of sapphires and diamonds. Perhaps illogically, the ring confirmed Charlie’s impression of the woman as someone who lacked a frivolous side. ‘I’m a sergeant, not a PC. Look, it’s Christmas… I assume you want to get back to your family?’ The woman nodded. ‘My husband tried to stop me coming here, but I had to.’ ‘How did he try to stop you?’ ‘Oh, nothing like that. I’m not a victim of domestic violence.’ She made a small noise that was almost a laugh. ‘All right. How can I help you?’ The woman removed her coat, and sat. ‘I want to be watched,’ she said. ‘Can you watch me? Or… I don’t know. Something.’ ‘Okay, first things first.’ Charlie reached for the notepad and pen on the table in front of her. Ten minutes later, she had the woman’s details: Jane Quintus, 42, a marketing director for a pharmaceutical company. Address: 8 Bevan Street, Spilling. Married to Damian Quintus, 40, an app designer. One child aged nine called Louis. ‘When you say you want to be watched…’ ‘Yes, monitored. I want to be placed under surveillance. I don’t know if electronic tagging is only for criminals, but if it isn’t, that might work.’ Was this a wind-up? Charlie put down the pad and pen. ‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘I want you to be able to verify where I am, and where I will be, between 27 December and 3 January.’ ‘Why? Are you in danger?’ It felt like the wrong question. It was easy enough to ask for protection if that was what you wanted. ‘Yes,’ said Jane Quintus. ‘From who?’ ‘You.’ ‘Me?’ ‘Not you personally. I’m in danger of being arrested for murder by you-the-police, and I have zero faith in the legal system to acquit wrongly accused…’ ‘Wait a second.’ Charlie sat forward in her chair. ‘Do I need to be recording this conversation? Have you killed somebody?’ ‘No, and I don’t intend to. But I do believe there’s a strong chance a man might be murdered imminently. It’s the holidays. Everyone has plenty of free time on their hands to… dwell on things. He’s called Tony Stokes. The…’ She broke off with a shrug. ‘The victim?’ said Charlie. ‘The hypothetical victim. Anthony Stokes. If and when he’s murdered, everyone will suspect me. After 3 January, my husband and son will be back — they’re going away together on the 27th, to visit my husband’s family in Australia — and I’m at work from the next day, the fourth. I’ll be able to account for my movements and have them verified. Until then, I’m going to be alone at home for much of the time. What?’ she snapped. ‘I warned you this was an irregular situation.’
AdTech AdCharlie realised she’d been shaking her head slowly. ‘Who is Anthony Stokes?’
‘A teacher at my son’s school.’ ‘And in your opinion, Mr Stokes needs police protection?’ She looked surprised, as if it was an outlandish question. ‘I don’t care what he needs. Yes, probably, if you want to save his life, which I don’t. I’d be thrilled if he died, and at least three people know that, three people who would also love to see him dead though they won’t admit it. I won’t kill him myself because I don’t want to waste my life in prison. And I can’t relax, knowing that if he is murdered, everyone will think I did it and I could end up in jail whether I’m innocent or not. I won’t be able to pretend I’m sorry he’s dead.’ Silently, Charlie counted to five before speaking. ‘Mrs Quintus, do you know what I’m going to say to you next? I think, deep down, you must do. You seem intelligent.’ ‘You want to know why I hate him so much?’ ‘No. Saving lives whenever we can is what the police do. Monitoring the movements of people who are happy to see others murdered so that, when it happens, they won’t be suspected of those murders… that’s something the police never do. And never will. If you’re serious and this isn’t some kind of weird seasonal joke… why not hire a private detective? Pay him enough, I’m sure he’ll happily film and photograph your every movement between 27 December and 3 January.’ You crazy cow. ‘That’s… actually not a bad idea.’ Jane Quintus was on her feet with her coat half on before she thought of the downside. ‘Private investigators won’t be in their offices at Christmas, will they? Not any local ones.’ ‘You’d be surprised,’ said Charlie. ‘Before you go, I’ll need the three names.’ ‘Pardon?’ ‘The three people who’d love Anthony Stokes to be murdered, apart from you.’ Jane Quintus shook her head. ‘Sorry. It wouldn’t be fair. No one’s harmed him yet. There’s no onus on me to reveal any names.’ ‘And if one of the three murders him, you’ll hope they get away with it?’ ‘Yes. I will.’ ‘Has it occurred to you that by coming here, you might have sabotaged this murder you so want to happen?’ ‘I came here because of my own anxiety —for myself. I wasn’t thinking about him.’ ‘What’s he done that’s so terrible?’ ‘Why don’t you ask him that while you’re offering to protect him? Ask him if he thinks a father awarding a prize to his own son is a conflict of interests.’ ‘What prize?’ Jane Quintus sighed. ‘The trouble is, when you try to explain to someone who hasn’t lived through it, it sounds so petty. Goodbye, Sergeant.’ She was through the door before Charlie had decided what to do. Should she follow her? Too late. And what was the point, when she’d just explained to Jane Quintus that she couldn’t help? A prize. What prize could matter so much that it would make four people want to commit murder? ◊◊◊◊◊ Two hours later, Charlie parked her car outside 32 Fison Road, Rawndesley — dwelling of Anthony Stokes. House, rather. She’d only thought of it as a dwelling because Jane Quintus had said the holidays gave people time to dwell on things. It had been easy to find the right school online: Hindwell Street Primary. Quintus was an unusual surname, and nine-year-old Louis Quintus had appeared once or twice in the local paper, alongside his classmates. A teacher called Anthony Stokes worked at the same school, and Charlie had found his address easily. She rang the bell, not expecting him to be home. Her stomach lurched when the door was yanked open and a man in a brown towelling robe appeared. ‘Yeah?’ he said aggressively. Handsome, mid-thirties, lower jaw covered in dark stubble. Clearly he had no plans for Christmas Day, or they were starting late. Charlie introduced herself. ‘You expect me to believe you’re a real police officer?’ he barked. ‘I showed you my ID.’ ‘Is it you that’s been following me?’ Charlie wondered if everyone associated with Hindwell Street Primary School was a paranoid lunatic. What the hell was going on? ‘Calling me every five minutes, hanging up?’ ‘No, sir. If I could come in for a moment…’ ‘Who’s put you up to this? I’ve done nothing illegal. The police wouldn’t be interested in me. That’s how I know you’re not them — so who are you, in your fake uniform? What do you want?’ ‘I think you might be at risk,’ Charlie told him. ‘Ring Spilling police station and check I’m who I say I am if you don’t believe me. Or if you’ll calm down and let me in…’ ‘No way.’ ‘You’d rather do this on the doorstep? All right. If I say to you, “Father, son, prize”…’ An arm shot out. A hand grabbed Charlie by her hair. He’d dragged her into the hallway and slammed the door before she thought of screaming, and now that screaming seemed like a good idea, she couldn’t make a sound. His hands were around her throat, squeezing her windpipe. They were on the floor, her underneath, crushed. She couldn’t get her hands between his chest and hers to push him away. She heard a loud crashing sound and her body sagged with relief — he’d have to stop now, to see what the noise was — but he didn’t stop. ‘If school finds out, I’m a goner,’ he spat at her, still gripping her throat. ‘That. Will. Not. Happen.’ Charlie forced herself to focus on the words. His face was a pink blob hovering overhead as her vision started to break up. Then his face smashed down into hers and slid away and she could breathe again. It was agony, but she had air: that was all that mattered. Bright shapes exploded in front of her eyes. She heard a repetitive thudding sound. Was he running away? Working it out was impossible. Her forehead, where his had smashed into it, hurt nearly as much as her throat. After a few seconds — or maybe minutes, she couldn’t tell — of gasping and gulping, Charlie managed to roll onto her side. She saw black shoes, black tights, and knew whose face she’d see when she looked up. ‘Mrs Quintus,’ she managed to say in a hoarse whisper. Jane Quintus was holding a medium-sized grey rock. It was only then, seeing those red hands and the blood dripping from the stone, that Charlie let herself notice the body. Anthony Stokes lay beside her, face down. The blood was his. So he hadn’t run away: that wasn’t the thudding sound she’d heard. Later, she and others would ask Jane Quintus how many times she’d struck Stokes, and Jane Quintus would say that she didn’t remember. She’d meant only to knock him out so that he’d stop hurting Charlie — she hadn’t meant to kill him. She’d picked up the rock from his front garden to smash the window, knowing there was a police sergeant in danger inside the house. Then, acting purely on instinct, she’d used the same rock to save a life. She would say she’d been unable to decide what to do after she left Spilling police station on 25 December 2016. She hadn’t known whether to go home, try to find a private detective, or confront Stokes herself — not violently, only verbally. She’d ended up on a bench across the road from his house, unsure of why she was there. She would deny making hundreds of untraceable calls to Stokes’s mobile phone in the run-up to Christmas. The media would report the full story: a form teacher who had acted as an apologist for the vicious psychological bullying by one of his pupils of four other boys, one of whom — not Louis Quintus — had attempted suicide as a result. Commentators on internet forums would express their shock that Stokes had secured the backing of the school’s head to award the class achievement prize to the bully at the end of the previous school year, claiming that the all-carrot-and-no-stick approach would inspire the vicious boy to behave better in future and arguing that the four mothers who called this a disgusting injustice were compassionless and vindictive. Jane Quintus could have borne the unfair awarding of the prize to the bully without wishing Anthony Stokes dead. She did bear it — until the day she walked into Stokes’s office and read an email on his computer screen that filled in the missing piece of the picture: the bully was his son, though he didn’t share his surname. That had been Jane Quintus’s limit: the discovery that Stokes had been motivated not by idealistic naivety or a skewed sense of right and wrong but by straightforward nepotism. All of this would become public knowledge because Jane Quintus would give many interviews. Her motive for the murder she didn’t commit, of the man she ended up killing in order to save a life, would become the most famous motive for a non-murder ever to become widely known; it would be dwelled upon at length in the media and in nearly every home in the UK. And Jane Quintus, who would never see the inside of a prison, would look Charlie in the eye and say tearfully, ‘You can’t honestly imagine that I planned it? I wouldn’t endanger your life or anyone else’s. I didn’t know you’d go to his house, or that he’d react as he did. Hard as it is to believe — and it’s hard for me too, I promise you — sometimes things work out for the best without our having to do anything at all.’