Ian Benniston shivered; he stamped his frozen feet and flapped his arms vigorously around his coat. Standing on an open playing field on a damp November afternoon was not what he had in mind as the best way to spend a Sunday. His eldest son, Harry, was playing for the school football team and, in the absence of his wife, Rachel, it had fallen to Ian’s lot to offer family support for the lad’s efforts. He looked at his watch, and thanked God for the fact that there were only five minutes left to play.
Football was not, and never had been, one of his favourite pastimes but his musings were interrupted by a sudden burst of excitement on the pitch. Racing through the opposing defence, Harry found himself with only the goalkeeper to beat. In a moment of class in an otherwise drab encounter, he chipped the outrushing figure and turned in triumph as the ball nestled neatly into the corner of the net. Moments later, the final whistle sounded and he was buried beneath a pile of delirious team mates. Rounding up his younger son, George, from a kickabout, Ian smiled and clapped as the team came off the pitch.
“Well done, son.” He ruffled the lad’s windswept hair as the team trooped off the pitch.
“Cheers, Dad.” Harry smiled.
“Good goal, that,” he continued, hoping that the terminology was correct. ‘Make sure that you get the after-match chat right.’ Rachel had cautioned. ‘Otherwise you’ll look a right plonker.’
Later that afternoon, and following a debriefing with his wife, Benniston sat before a roaring fire and settled down to the task which he would much rather have been doing all day – the strategic plan which he and his twin sister, Kelly, had agreed to set before their father. Tom Benniston was the majority shareholder in the family firm, and a man entrenched in his own set of values – it would not be an easy task.
He ran his eye through the report upon which they had collaborated and nodded slowly. The figures all stacked up, and the sales forecasts which Kelly had provided, whilst cautious, would propel the company from its current state of stagnation into a period of sustainable growth.
Benniston Engineering had been started by Ian’s grandfather in 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War. It flourished in the return to peacetime production, and by the time Tom took control in the mid-1970s, had settled into a niche which few competitors could match. A growing and loyal customer base had provided the family with a lifestyle which now saw the senior Benniston able to afford a somewhat palatial residence in the affluent area of Ranmore, in Sheffield. What he had failed to appreciate, amid the company’s continued development during the 1990s, was the current shrinking market, and this was the catalyst which had prompted his two children to take remedial action – the result was the report which Ian had just finished reading.
“That was a sigh and a half.” Rachel had entered the lounge unheard as Ian put the documents aside. He stared thoughtfully into the fire; turning, he attempted a smile.
“Going to have to go to our kid’s.” The term her husband used for his twin sister was usually a source of amusement - this was not one of those occasions.
“Serious, is it?”
“Could be,” he replied. “If the old man can’t be made to see sense, I don’t know what we’ll do. Won’t be late.”
He put on his coat and stepped out into the biting cold once more. The drive across Sheffield to the home of Kelly and her family in Killamarsh would take him half an hour, and he was hoping that this time may be able to provide him with a few ideas on dealing with their cantankerous father. By the time he stepped out of his car at the other end of the journey, however, he was none the wiser on the course of action which they would need to take. After the usual pleasantries, he and his sister sat down at the kitchen table.
“Well?” Kelly came straight to the point.
“Figures look good, and I can’t see any holes in the data.” He took a mouthful of the tea she had placed before him, swallowed, and continued. “Have to run it past the old man, though, and I wouldn’t go holding your breath.”
Tom Benniston had, over the years, resisted any and all attempts by his two children to change direction of the company’s product base. As it was, the engineering firm was steeped in traditional manufacturing, having only two main sales lines with a handful of major customers. His stance of sticking to what he knew was the source of Ian’s current concerns about the financial viability of Benniston Engineering – it was haemorrhaging cash.
“When are you going to see him?”
“Well,” Ian looked at his watch, “he won’t appreciate being disturbed at the weekend, so I suppose first thing in the morning would be best. Want to be there?”
“Not bloody likely!” She frowned. “I remember the last time we tried to sit him down and talk about the firm – he hit the roof.”
“Yeah, right,” he smiled and shook his head. “Thanks for that, sis.”
“No, thanks. Best be getting home.” Benniston rose from his seat. “Big meeting to prepare for.”
The return journey to Fulwood gave Ian time to ponder his approach to his father. The company’s profitability on its two main lines had been falling for some time. Considerable investment had been made by Tom Benniston, when he took over the reins of the firm, into expanding output of conveyor systems for bakeries and abattoirs. However, for the past few years the small group of customers utilising the equipment had been moving their own production facilities into eastern Europe with its lower labour cost base and access to much cheaper raw materials. This left the firm with only a few, relatively high-cost, maintenance contracts for existing plant, and all of these were due to run out within the next six months. Unless the old man could be made to see sense, Benniston Engineering would cease to trade.
Kelly, as head of design and product development, had, with her small team, produced a range of low cost, low energy, domestic appliances which would, with a minimal amount of retooling, give the company the breathing space it so desperately needed in order to formulate a more coherent long-term plan. It was essential that these be marketed quickly whilst the funds were available. However, by the time he pulled onto the drive back at home, he was no nearer to finalising the tactics which he would need to use on the following day than he had been when he left Killamarsh.
Tom Benniston’s abrupt manner had become a hallmark of the way in which he chose to run the company, and those in receipt of his sometimes barbed retorts were left in no doubt as to their status within the organisation. Ian, however, was made of sterner stuff and the elder man knew that there were times when his tread had to be a little lighter than normal with his son.
“Yes.” The statement was delivered in a flat tone, and Ian pulled a file from the bottom of the pile of documents which they had been scrutinising as part of the usual weekly reporting routine.
“Alright, what is it? As if I didn’t know.”
“Dad,” Ian said, trying to lighten the mood. “We really do need to look seriously at the range of products we’re running. If we don’t make some radical changes…”
He got no further. Tom stood up, knocking his chair backwards as he left the board room table and headed for the drinks cabinet. The silence was ominous, and as he turned back to face his son with a glass of Glenfiddich in his hand, Ian could see that his face was red with rage. Standing with his back to the fire, he glared at his son.
Later that day, with whisky to hand and the soothing words of Rosalinda, his partner, echoing in his ears, Tom Benniston related the events of the afternoon meeting with his son.
“You mustn’t let either of them push you around, caro,” she cooed in her singsong Neapolitan accent. “You are the largest shareholder in the company – they have to do what you say.”
Benniston, blind to the machinations of this woman who had come into his life, smiled for the first time in a while and downed the rest of his scotch.
“I get you another one; you just sit back and relax a little.” With her back to the room, and shielding the drinks cabinet, Rosalinda was able to pour the white power into the glass and stir the contents thoroughly before smiling and handing it back to him.
“So, what happened then?” It was the afternoon of the following day before Ian had chance to catch up with his sister. Kelly closed the office door as Ian sat down.
“Dad just stood there with his back to the fire, glaring at me as if I’d asked for the family silver,” he sighed. “Then we had this almighty row, and he told me to clear off and find something else to do with my time if I didn’t like the way things were.”
“What do we do now?” she asked. “The company can’t continue for much longer the way things are.”
“I know, I know,” he shook his head. “If he’d just listen to reason…”
“Huh!” she exclaimed. “There’s only one voice he hears nowadays.”
“La Diva?” Ian’s face fell.
“La Diva!” Kelly snorted. “Bloody woman!”
‘La Diva’, as Kelly called her, had appeared on the scene almost twelve months earlier. Tom Benniston had been a widower since the death of his wife, and the twins’ mother, Doreen, in a car crash just before Christmas 2011. She had stormed out of the house following a furious row with her husband, and toxicology tests had revealed a blood/alcohol level of almost three times the legal limit. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death, but the twins both blamed their father for the way in which he had treated her for a number of years. Tom had met La Diva whilst on holiday in Naples in the summer of 2012, and she quickly established herself as his constant companion.
Rosalinda Crocetti was a woman of outstanding natural beauty, and entranced Tom Benniston from the moment they met. She told him that she was Neapolitan by birth and bilingual by reason of her English mother. If there had been any hesitation on his part, it was soon dispelled by her serenading him in the classic Naples way. Her rendition of Puccini’s ‘O, Mio Babbino Caro!’ had him eating out of her hand. To say that she was not immediately welcomed by the twins amounted to the understatement of the century.
“You’ll never make him see sense now that she’s around,” she continued. “Pity he couldn’t have some kind of accident.”
The last statement hung in the air like a bad smell as Ian took in what his sister had just said. Kelly’s raised eyebrows and grim smile told him that she had not been joking. Tom Benniston had never been what might be regarded as a family man, choosing to spend his time split between golf club and his local pub. Consequently, the children, in their formative years, had been very much under the influence of their now dead mother. Both blamed him for the actions which led to her death in the accident, and many a row during their teenage years had resulted in what he had referred to as ‘keeping them in line’. The bruises had faded, unlike the seething wish for revenge. Now all that was coming to a head as a result of the latest clashes.
“You have to be kidding,” he said, testing the water.
“Think about it,” she replied. “With him out of the way, we’d have a free hand to pull the firm round.”
“Well”, she rose to put the kettle on, “how often have you actually seen him sober recently?”
Ian had to admit that his father’s liking for the bottle had gained pace in the last year, fuelled by Rosalinda’s love of the high life. She was a party animal and Tom had fallen in easily with her hectic social life - the drink was merely a by-product of her socialising. It had become common knowledge at work that a glass of scotch was never far from his hand.
“He stank of it when I saw him last, and I wasn’t about to hang about to see if his temper got any worse,” he sighed and shook his head.
“Shame if he were to have a fall, then.” She stared directly into her brother’s eyes. “Anyway, who would suspect you - you’re his son?”
“Me?” Ian started. “Why me? What, are you too busy?”
“He’d never let me get close enough; it would have to be you. Anyway, you’d need an alibi, wouldn’t you?”
“Got it all figured out, then?”
Adrian, Kelly’s husband, chose that moment to come into the room and the conversation died. He smiled at them both and exchanged the customary pleasantries with his brother-in-law.
“Told you the news, has she?” he nodded in Kelly’s direction.
“Not pregnant again, are you sis?” Benniston teased.
“He’s been put on notice,” she said, ignoring the jibe.
“Redundant?” Ian looked at Adrian in surprise.
“Yep,” he grimaced. “Eight weeks and I’m out.”
“Sixteen years at the place, and now they do this.” Kelly snorted in disgust.
“I thought Terry Palmer was retiring,” Ian said. “You were lined up to replace him weren’t you, Adrian?”
“Changed his mind, didn’t he. Now they have too many foremen and we lost a big order to an overseas competitor. They’re cutting back and my department is the one to close.”
The discussion ended with Adrian leaving the room, and for a moment brother and sister stared at each other in silence. Ian finished his tea and put the mug back on the table.
“You alright for cash, sis?”
“Oh, we’ll manage, but with Ellie going off to uni and Lizzie changing schools there are going to have to be some big changes. Wish I’d taken your advice now.”
“Well, I did give you the chance to get in at the ground floor with Dave.” He shook his head. “Too late now.”
Dave Ridley, a close friend of Ian and Rachel, had decided to set up his own plumbing business some years earlier and needed someone to run the finances at the outset. It hadn’t taken too much time, but the major factor in the success of the business had been the additional cash which the Bennistons had been able to lend to him. With rapid growth had come a flotation. The three of them sold their shares, and Ian and his wife had made a killing - Kelly had turned down the chance despite the urgings of her brother. The profit from the sale of the shares had enabled Ian to move his family from their three bedroom semi to a four bed detached in the more salubrious area of Fulwood.
As Ian left Killamarsh once more, he began to ponder his sister’s motives for wanting their father out of the way. The more he thought about what she had said, the more sense it made to have him, somehow, out of the picture. What concerned him more than anything else was the fact that there only seemed to be only one option which would ensure the future of the company – it was a decision which neither of them could share with anyone else.
A further week passed and, despite more tentative approaches from his son, Tom Benniston remained resolute in his determination to reject the plans of his two children. Fuelled by the support which Rosalinda constantly gave, he was becoming a frustrated and bitter man. A sense of paranoia, encouraged by Ian and Kelly’s overtures, had him taking more than an active interest in everything happening on the site. In the darkness of a December afternoon, he was examining remedial work to the outside of the factory from the scaffolding some fifty feet above ground. The boards were slippery and the falling temperature had begun to freeze the damp surface. He stumbled towards a corner of the factory wall, a fact not helped by a free intake of alcohol during the afternoon – the remains of the last glass of scotch were still in his hand.
Ian looked up at the sky as he made his way across the car park at the end of his day – there was a threat of snow in the air, and he shivered. The sight of the figure up on the scaffolding had him frozen to the spot, as the blustery wind sent Tom Benniston stumbling against one of the scaffolding poles. He grabbed at the rail and only just prevented himself from falling.
“Bloody idiot!” Ian cursed. “What the hell does he thinks he’s doing?”
All thoughts of the earlier matter temporarily forgotten, he rushed back to the factory and made his way round the side where access to the scaffolding had been left by the contractors. By the time Ian reached the fourth level, Tom Benniston had moved on and was now on the north side of the building. With the temperature dropping by the minute, Ian was having difficulty keeping his feet in a now swirling wind. Finally, he rounded the corner and stood about fifty feet from his father’s position. Tom Benniston was swaying considerably, a glass of scotch still in his left hand and his right clutched tightly around one of the scaffolding poles.
“Dad,” he called softly, trying not to startle his father.
“Huh?” Tom Benniston looked round, eyes squinting in the gloom.
“What are you on with, up here in this weather?” Kelly’s words came back to him from their earlier meeting. ‘Shame if he were to have a fall, then.’
It wouldn’t take much in his father’s inebriated condition. An argument, a bit of a struggle with a man known for his temper, and a defensive shove. Tom Benniston would be over the edge of the scaffolding, plummeting fifty feet to almost certain death on the unforgiving concrete of the factory yard. He looked down at the surrounding area; there was no-one in sight, and no-one to witness what he had in mind. His hesitancy seemed to fuel Tom Benniston’s already truculent mood.
“What d’you want?”
“Come down, Dad. You’re going to get hurt.”
“Get out of my sight!” Benniston staggered across the intervening distance with remarkable speed, and now had his son by the lapel of his jacket. “I’ve said all I need to about those bloody new products!”
With his father’s grip now tightening, and pushing him back against the safety rail of a scaffolding pole, Ian was staring downwards at the factory yard. Any further and he would be over the edge. Releasing his grip on the pole, he shoved the snarling figure of Tom Benniston backwards and onto the relative safety of the factory wall. It would have been quite easy at this point for Ian Benniston to goad his father into a step forward and then simply step out of the way, allowing the man’s momentum to carry him over the rail and to his death.
Down in the car park and back in the safety of his car, Ian dialled his sister’s number. The call went to the answering service and, cursing under his breath, he left a message before speeding away. The squeal of rubber on tarmac grabbed the attention of a man walking his dog on the waste ground adjacent to the factory site. He had been standing frozen in disbelief at what he had just seen. Two figures on the scaffolding on the north face of the Benniston factory. It was dark, and the rain was falling more steadily, making visibility a little hazy. There had been a push – he was certain of that – and the sight of someone retreating away from that side of the building.
The figure falling from the scaffolding made no noise until it hit the ground – he winced at the sickening sound of the impact on the concrete. That had been moments earlier and his attention was now drawn by the noise of a car speeding away from the area - he hurried to the roadside where the vehicle was approaching his position. Repeating the make, model and registration number, he pulled a pen and piece of paper from his pocket. He looked around for anyone else who might be around – he was alone. Taking his mobile from deep within the pocket of his overcoat, he dialled 999.
“Messy.” DI Welland took a last drag from his cigarette and crushed it beneath his heel.
Returning to the body after finishing the smoke, he squatted at the side of his sergeant, Matt Burton. The area had been taped off, and a uniformed PC was taking a statement from the only witness, Andy Woodson.
“Do we know who he is?” Welland asked.
“Don’t you dare touch him.” The strident voice of Doreen Charlton echoed across the yard as she approached with her bag. She had been the area pathologist for over twenty years and all the local uniforms and CID knew the rules. No-one touches the crime scene until she gives the go ahead.
“Alright,” the DI sighed. “Can you tell us who he is?”
In an instant, the body had been searched and a wallet produced from an inside pocket. Burton slipped on a pair of latex gloves and opened it. “Tom Benniston; could be the owner.”
With the body removed from site and on its way to the lab, the scene was cleared by Charlton for Welland’s team to carry out an intensive search. They were about to begin when a WPC came hurrying up.
“Sir,” she pointed at Andy Woodson, “our witness says that he saw a struggle, and someone push the victim over the edge. He wrote down the details of a car leaving the site.”
“Our lucky day, Matt,” Welland smiled at his sergeant. “Thank you, constable. See if you can get a trace on it.”
“Sir, we don’t need to. Mr Woodson says that he recognised the driver – it was Ian Benniston, the victim’s son.”
“Was it now?” The DI’s eyed widened. An easy one – how he loved them. “Address?”
“Getting it now, sir.”
“Excellent. Hope Mr Benniston has the kettle on; I’m gasping for a cup of tea.”
Kelly pressed the red light on the answering machine and listened intently to the message from her brother. Hanging her coat in the hall, she came back into the lounge and played it over again. It would have to go – no sense in leaving any loose ends lying around for the police to find. Lucky they’d bought a new one to replace the old audio cassette model at the weekend. Pulling the connector from the box on the wall, she wrapped the wire around it, placed it into the box which had contained the new machine, and stashed it in the loft for disposal at a later date.
“All done?” Adrian came through the front door just as she had closed the hatch to the loft ladder.
“More than you could know,” she replied cryptically. “There’s more stuff up there than I remember. Mind you, that old answering machine can go to the tip at the weekend. Your job, I think.”
“Mr Benniston?” Terry Welland smiled and held up his ID card. “DI Welland and DS Burton, South Yorkshire police. May we come in, sir?”
“What’s it about?” Ian asked nervously.
“Best done inside, sir.” Welland nodded over Benniston’s shoulder.
“Alright, come in. The lounge is the first door on the right.”
Welland took a seat without being asked, and Burton stood by the door as Ian followed them in. Apart from the three of them the house was silent, Rachel having taken the boys to see her husband’s parents.
“I’ll come straight to the point, Mr Benniston. We have a witness placing you at the scene of the death of your father this evening. Anything to say about that?”
“My father? Dead?” Benniston’s eyes widened in surprise, and Welland had to admit that it was a good act.
“As a dodo, sir,” Burton interjected. “The witness also confirmed that a struggle took place just prior to your leaving the scene.”
“How did he…? I mean, what happened?”
“Seems like he fell from some scaffolding… or was pushed.”
“Are you accusing me of something?” Benniston scowled, suddenly aware of being cornered.
“Why don’t we continue this down at the station?” Welland said. “Might be best all round.”
“Do I need a solicitor?”
“Do you think you do?” Burton asked. “We’d just like you to help us with our enquiries for the moment.”
Ian Benniston froze. His father dead, and he was now being grilled by two CID officers; it looked to him as if he was being set up as prime suspect. He said no more and, with neighbours peering through a variety of curtains, was led down his garden path and into an unmarked police car. Their arrival at Carbrook House in Tinsley coincided with the appearance of Doreen Charlton. She pointed Terry Welland in the direction of an interview room and closed the door behind them.
“Made an arrest?” She asked.
“Not yet. He’s just helping us out at the moment.” The DI sat down opposite her. “Why?”
“I’ve just finished the preliminary examination of Tom Benniston.”
“He may have been dead before he hit the ground. There was blunt force trauma to the back of the head, and it looks like a large part of the skull had caved in.”
“Weapon?” he asked. “We found nothing at the scene.”
“Scaffolding pole looks favourite,” the pathologist continued. “He was probably shoved backwards onto it with considerable force. “Have you still got the scene taped off?”
“I’m off back there to look for trace evidence. There should be a fair amount of blood at the point where he fell.” She got up. “Oh, and there was something else.”
“Tom Benniston had skin under his fingernails. You might want to check your suspect for scratches. There were also fibres on his coat which weren’t a match to it.”
By the time Terry Welland had returned to the interview room where Ian Benniston now sat, he had been joined by Joanne Davidson, junior partner at Wallis Thorne, legal representatives to both the Benniston company and also the family members. She was writing a series of notes from instructions provided by her client, and they both looked up as Welland sat down opposite them.
“Mr Benniston,” he said. “We’re going to need a DNA swab from you.”
“Inspector Welland, you know as well as I do, that Mr Benniston cannot be compelled to provide a sample unless you charge him with a crime.” Joanne Davidson smiled – she loved getting one over on those in authority. “Are you about to do that?”
“Not at this point,” Welland conceded; he frowned. “Those are nasty marks you have on your neck, Mr Benniston. Care to explain how you got them? They look pretty fresh to me.”
Ian Benniston inadvertently fingered the wound that his father had inflicted in the course of their argument on the scaffolding, and Welland smiled at the involuntary gesture.
“Did he put up much of a struggle?”
“I know how this must look,” Ian said, ignoring the advice of Davidson to say nothing. “I didn’t kill him.”
“Well, now, let’s take a look at what we have.” Welland leaned back. “The two of you fifty feet up, sounds of an argument according to our witness, and you leaving the site in a hurry. You have scratches on your face which correspond to the skin traces which the pathologist pulled from under your father’s fingernails, and we’ll probably be able to match fibres also recovered to the jacket which you’re still wearing. What conclusion would you come to?”
“None of this puts my client at the scene of your so-called murder at the time it took place,” Davidson stepped in as Ian opened his mouth to speak. “Can anyone identify him as the individual allegedly pushing Mr Benniston off the scaffolding?”
“He was there,” Welland growled, now sitting forwards once more.
“No doubt,” she replied, “But what was the time difference between your witness seeing the act, and his identification of my client driving away?”
Welland looked at his sergeant, Matt Burton.
“He wasn’t sure,” the DS said. “Could have been about two or three minutes by the time he got to the road.”
“Two or three minutes?” Davidson smiled. “From what I’ve been told, it would take at least ten to get down from the scaffolding, around the building, across the car park, and into the vehicle before even attempting to drive away.”
“It wasn’t me.” Ian Benniston took the opportunity which the intervening silence gave him to reiterate his innocence. He suddenly brightened. “Check with Kelly!”
“Kelly?” Burton asked, puzzled.
“My sister.” His eyes suddenly lit up with the possibility of salvation. “I called her from the car. She wasn’t in, but I left a message on the answering machine. I told her…” He stopped, suddenly aware that the information which he left would not exactly provide him with a reprieve.
“Told her what, Mr Benniston?” Welland’s voice was quiet and menacing.
“That’s enough.” Joanne Davidson’s hand on Ian’s arm prevented any further facts emerging. “Why don’t you check that out, Inspector? In the meantime, if you aren’t going to charge Mr Benniston, I think he and I will be leaving. You don’t have anything further, do you?”
Terry Welland was forced to concede that the facts as they stood were insufficient to allow him to charge Ian Benniston, and Davidson escorted him out of the interview room and into the arms of Rachel, his wife, who had arrived half an hour earlier. Having left their two sons with a neighbour, following the news of her husband’s departure to the police station, she was now in floods of tears as Ian tried to explain the events of the past few days. Once out of the earshot of Welland and Davidson, he went into more detail, and the realisation of Kelly’s suggestion began to take effect upon her. In a calmer frame of mind she could not believe the story which her husband was beginning to unfold.
“Have we got an address for Benniston’s sister?” Terry Welland was poring through his own notes.
“Killamarsh,” Burton replied. “Here it is.” He passed over his notebook.
“Get over there, Matt, and take a look at the answering machine.” He got up and put on his coat. “I’m going back to the factory. The timings at the time of the murder are bothering me.”
“What am I looking for?”
“Dunno. Benniston seemed adamant that he left a message. Might be interesting to find out what it was.”
Terry Welland got out of the squad car and crossed the car park along with a uniform PC – he wasn’t about to climb a fifty foot scaffold on his own. Stepping off the ladder at the level from which Tom Benniston had plunged to his death, he took out a pack of Silk Cut and lit up. Leaning against the safety rail, he looked out across the site and blew out a stream of smoke. Andy Woodson had stated that it had been only a couple of minutes between his seeing Benniston fall, and witnessing the son speed away from the site. There was nothing for it but to try and replicate the route which would have taken the younger man back to his vehicle. Stubbing out the remains of the cigarette, he took a deep breath and set off.
Out of breath, and now in the driver’s seat of the squad car, he checked the stop watch which he had set running up on the scaffold. With the car park situated on the south side of the factory, his journey from the base of the scaffolding took him to the opposite aside of the site, and this alone accounted for half of the time difference between the witness statement and Joanne Davidson’s assessment. There was something wrong. Even allowing for the fact that Ian Benniston would be desperate to get away from the scene, he would have to have been a superman to make his escape in the time which Andy Woodson alleged. This case was not as cut and dried as it seemed. Matt Burton was waiting for him when he walked back into the office.
“Well?” Welland looked hopeful.
“Nothing,” Burton shook his head. “The answering machine was as clean as a whistle, and I mean ‘clean’. It looked brand new, and there was nothing in the memory to indicate that any kind of message had been left.”
“So, Benniston’s lying.”
“Either that, or his sister is hiding something.” The DS sat down opposite his boss.
“We’re stuck,” Welland sighed. “Without a search warrant we can’t even begin to challenge the stories that either is telling us, and we’ve not got enough for one.”
“We have been talking to employees,” Burton remarked. “One or two were quite forthcoming about the rows between the two men. Seems that Benniston senior and his son weren’t exactly on the best of terms.”
“Yeah, but everyone falls out sometimes. Me and my old man never got on, but that doesn’t mean that I’d kill him.” Welland brightened suddenly. “Anyone talk to the old man’s bit of stuff?”
Burton stiffened in his seat. Acutely aware that an angle may have been missed, and not wanting to be the one held responsible for it, he suggested they both pay a call to the grieving partner immediately. They pulled up outside the gates of the palatial residence in Ranmore half an hour later.
Rosalinda Crocetti’s demeanour was calm in the extreme. For a woman who had just lost the man she loved and, to Welland’s cynical eye, her meal ticket, she was not giving the impression of a grief-stricken partner. She showed them into a sumptuously furnished lounge where they all sat down.
Over the following hour, the two detectives were given chapter and verse on a series of verbally violent clashes between the two Benniston men on the subject of the future direction of the company, with Tom Benniston painted firmly in the role of the injured party. The Benniston twins, she said, had made the life of their father so difficult that he had resorted to drinking on a scale which she had not witnessed since the two of them had met in July of the previous year. There was no doubt in her mind that Tom had been murdered, and she took great care to implicate both of the children. Back at the station, Welland’s mood had lightened considerably.
“Think we have enough for a warrant now, boss?” Burton asked.
“I do,” Welland replied. “And let’s bring both of those two in for questioning. Things just got a lot more interesting.”
“What about Andy Woodson? Want me to check his story again? His timings were very tight – anyone who’d just witnessed a killing might be unreliable about them in court.”
“No, Matt, leave him be for the moment.” Welland shook his head. “Let’s just see what happens when we shake the two kids up. Get a search warrant and go back to the sister’s house while I’ve got them both here; have a good look around for an old answering machine – it might still be knocking around somewhere.”
With Burton and a team at the Killamarsh address of Kelly Watson, Terry Welland was currently ensconced with Ian Benniston and his solicitor, Joanne Davidson. The solicitor had already made her feelings known at Benniston being brought in once more for questioning, but the DI waved aside her protestations on the basis of new evidence.
“It would seem, from our enquiries at your company, Mr Benniston, that relations between you and your father were far from friendly,” he said. “Any comment about that?”
Benniston looked at his solicitor, who nodded. “We argued from time to time. What of it?”
“I’m told it was more than the odd disagreement.” Welland smiled. “I understand that the company is going through a rocky patch at the moment.” He looked at a set of notes on the table. “It appears that you and your sister aren’t getting your own way; is that true?”
“That’s company business, Inspector,” Davidson interrupted. “Nothing to do with the matter in hand.”
“Well, to my mind, it goes to motive.” The icy stare stilled the solicitor’s words. “We’ve done a bit of digging around, and it looks like the company may be severely compromised unless it takes some radical steps in its product range.” He stared directly at Benniston. “Standing in the way, was he?”
Ian Benniston could see his world crumbling before his very eyes, and all the indications seemingly pointed to him killing his father to get him out of the picture so that he and Kelly could not only take the company forward, but also benefit from the old man’s will. He froze; money – of course, that was it. Now he knew who was responsible for the entire thing. It all made perfect sense, and all he had to do was to tell Welland the full story and he would be off the hook. Taking one look at the scowl on the face of Joanne Davidson, and without a further thought for the other person involved, he began.
“Anything?” Welland asked his DS, who had just returned from the Killamarsh home of Kelly and Adrian.
“We turned the whole place over,” Burton shook his head. “I was convinced about the answering machine, but even the loft was clean. Looks like Benniston’s last throw of the dice has failed him. How did you get on with her?”
“Not well. Davidson was in with her as well, and the sister was tight-lipped in the extreme” Welland waved Burton to a chair. “She says she was home with her husband at the time of the killing, and no doubt he’ll back her up. The more I think about it, the more I’m leaning in Benniston’s favour. He can’t have made it to his car in the time that Andy Woodson said, and he’s sure about what he told us in his statement.”
“We need a bluff.”
“What d’you have in mind, Matt?”
“Mind if I take over, sir?” He withdrew an object from his pocket. “Had one of these lying around in a drawer at home. Didn’t think you’d mind if I stopped off on the way back.”
Back in the interview room, Kelly Watson sat with a smug smile across her features. Getting Ian to take the fall for the death of their father had been a masterstroke. She had faced Welland down with an ease with which she surprised herself. Desperate situations demanded appropriate solutions, and Adrian losing his job had been the catalyst. If she’d seen it sooner, they could both have saved all the money that La Diva had persuaded their deluded father to spend upon her. Still, it was almost over now, and with Ian in jail she would be free to benefit fully from the will. Selling the company would be a breeze, even in its parlous state; the contacts within the trade alone would be worth something, and the house would net a fortune in her terms.
“Mrs Watson,” Burton began; his grin temporarily unsettled her, and Welland picked up on it immediately. “The message your brother left was most illuminating.”
Kelly’s smugness disappeared, and the smile vanished from her face. There was nothing to be proved from the appearance of a new machine, and she had told Adrian to ditch the old one at the council refuse site. A seed of doubt began to germinate – her husband could be dilatory at times, and for once she was uncertain about his grasping the importance of what she had told him. It had been an old model – one with an audio cassette. In fact it was just the type which DS Burton was now waving in front of her.
“Where did you get that!?” The words were out of her mouth before she had the time to think, and Joanne Davidson’s efforts to silence her were doomed to failure.
“Didn’t hide it away well enough after all, did we?” Burton sneered.
“Bloody fool!” I told him to destroy that first!”
“That would be your husband, I believe?” asked Welland.
Watson sat with her head in her hands. One careless slip had ruined a perfect scam; she looked up at Welland and smiled.
“Good plan though, wasn’t it? Get your brother fitted up for the killing and then sail off with all the money.”
“It wasn’t you up on the scaffold a few minutes later, though, was it, Kelly?” Welland again – he had just seen the light. “You see, in our conversations with your brother we found out quite a bit about the two of you. For example, your vertigo. There’s no way you would have been able to go up that high, let alone push over the scaffolding a man half as big again as you are yourself.”
“The husband?” Burton’s eyes widened.
“The husband,” Welland replied. “Who’d suspect him, when all he was doing was providing his wife with an alibi? Ian’s casual remark about your visits to the doctor when you were both young was the key. Once I knew that, all the rest of the pieces fell into place.”
“I’ll bring him in, sir.” Burton was gone.
“Right,” Welland smiled at the sullen figure of Kelly Watson across the table. “I think it’s time we got down in writing what you and your husband have been up to. I’m sure that, with your solicitor present, we should be able to get it right between the two of us.”
The trial of Kelly and Adrian Watson caused scarcely a ripple outside the South Yorkshire area, but their custodial sentences ensured a healthy source of gossip around Sheffield for quite some time. Neither judge nor jury made any allowance for the fact that it had been Adrian who had dealt the final blow to Tom Benniston, and Kelly’s sentence owed more to the conspiracy charge than the substantive act itself.
Allowed out of jail to attend the funeral of her father, the shocks were far from over for both her and her brother. In a quiet moment, Rosalinda Crocetti made more than broad hints at the contents of Tom Benniston’s will. Ian’s first call the next morning was to the senior partner at Wallis Thorne (Solicitors) in York Street, just round the corner from Sheffield Cathedral. Harold Wallis had been their company and personal representative for many years, but had been unavailable at Ian’s first interview by Terry Welland – he ushered him into his private office with a frown upon his features.
“I can guess what you want to talk about, Ian.” He sat down and waved to a chair opposite.
“Yes; Dad’s will. I assume that you are in possession of it.”
“Oh, yes,” he smiled thinly. “However, it may not contain what you expect.”
“Meaning?” An icy feeling gripped the young man. “Surely it’s the one he made just after mum, died.”
“Not sure how you’re going to take this, but your dad made another about a year after that.”
“So who are the beneficiaries now, then?” There are some questions you wish you hadn’t asked, and Benniston should have known that this was one of them.
“Beneficiary,” Wallis corrected.
“He scrapped the old will and made out a fresh one – there’s only one beneficiary, and it’s neither of you two.”
“Rosalinda?” he asked, weakly.
“Indeed. He made everything over to her, including his stake in the company. Even that’s beyond your control now.”
“But surely, as his only surviving relatives, Kelly and I still have some say. After all, it’s not as though they were married – we can challenge the new will.”
“Ah,” Wallis frowned. “You don’t know, then.”
“Know? Know what?” The surprise on Ian’s face made for an uncomfortable feeling.
“Your father and Ms Crocetti were married in a private ceremony just over a year ago. It’s all perfectly legal, I’m afraid.”
“But I never saw her wearing a ring.”
“Perhaps you were never meant to,” Wallis said. “There’s no convention which compels it to be worn on the finger. Maybe it’s around her neck.”
This was beyond anything which Ian had anticipated, and went some way towards explaining Rosalinda’s behaviour at the funeral. The coldness which both he and Kelly had shown towards her had now come back to haunt them in spectacular style. Interrupting his journey home, he headed instead for Ranmore and the home, now, of the person who held his future in her hands.
“Come in, Ian,” she beamed. “So nice to see you.” The Italian lilt almost had him appreciating what it was that had so entranced his father. Almost, but not quite. If he thought that the shocks were over, he was wrong. The switch to a broad Birkenhead accent had him reeling.
“That’s right, pal,” she smirked. “Had your old man fooled right from the off. Dead easy to sweet talk old geezers like him when you know how. Sit down.”
The command gave Ian no alternative as his knees gave way and he slumped into the nearest chair. Struggling to understand what had just happened, he was no match for the ‘Diva’.
“Right. This is how it’s going to go,” she said, and for an instant he could have been listening to Lily Savage. “As I see it, I’ve got the house, the bank accounts, and sixty percent of the company. You, pal, are stuffed. We can either work together now that that sister of yours is out of the picture, or I’ll sell the lot and leave you with nothing. What’s it to be?”
With the question ringing in his ears, Ian Benniston was way short on ideas. At that point Rosalinda should have quit whilst she was ahead, but the winning hand she held went to her head and she overplayed it with all the skill of a rank beginner.
“I should be grateful, really,” she said, and Ian frowned in puzzlement. “The little doses of powder that I was feeding to your dad would have taken a lot longer to have an effect than pushing him off a scaffold. The two of you couldn’t even get that right.”
Her second mistake was to turn her back for the briefest of moments. While she was filling her glass from the wine decanter, Benniston was across the room, lifting the heavy poker from its fireside resting place. The single blow to the back of her head broke her neck, killing her instantly, leaving him, now in total control of his emotions, to tidy up.
There were no witnesses this time, and after a thorough cleaning of everything that he had touched, he calmly removed all items of cash and jewellery that he could find. In a state of supreme calmness, he broke the kitchen window from the outside, showering glass across the room. Muddy footprints, scuffed to make them untraceable, laid a path throughout the house as he set the scene for the ‘break-in’. Of course, the police would eventually be alerted by someone and decide that this was a burglary gone wrong. Although suspicion would undoubtedly come his way, Rachel would back him to the hilt once she had been made aware of the dance that that ‘La Diva’ had led the family. Taking one last look at the house, in its remote surroundings, which had once been his home, he got into his car and drove slowly away.