Sunday, August 30, 2020

Story: Christmas Wanted Him Dead (and notes)

Image from "Let Him Have It" (1991) 



Christmas Wanted Him Dead

copyright 2020 Taedis

(Warning. Contains gun violence and execution.)

Based on a true story with some sci fi nonsense thrown in.

Submitted for the HistoricalJuly20 SizeRiot writing contest.



27/01/53 (10:01 PM)


It's against the rules to show myself to anyone. I could ruin everything. I could get hurt.

But the guards left Derek's cell at 8:30 and there's no sign they're coming back. They were supposed to stay with him all night playing cards. He's alone. Scared.

Derek's a convicted murderer. The tallest prisoner in Wandsworth. I'm watching him from a vent so small only a mouse could slip inside. He could kill me a dozen ways and no one would ever know I was here. 

If I was thinking with my head I'd stay quiet, but my bleeding heart won't shut up.

I yell Derek's name till he looks straight at me.


02/11/52 (9:25 PM)


It took two days to climb the warehouse. It was filled with candy, but all I could smell was sulphur.

It was going to be a bad winter.

A pigeon couldn't fit where I perched, but I could see everything sitting on the lamp above the lift shed.

I heard them climbing the drainpipe before they set foot in the light on the roof. Derek looked so young. I know he's 19, but I'd only ever seen his picture before. Even babies look old in black and white.

It wasn't a heist. Not a caper. Just a couple bored guys playing crooks. Derek seemed surprised when the door to the stairs wouldn't open, like it hadn't occurred to him it'd be locked. 

Derek tried to hide when he heard the police, but it was too late.


27/01/53 (10:02 PM)


“Are you a fairy?” Derek asks. He really is an 11 year old in an adult body.

“My name's Minh.” 

“Is that a fairy name?”

“It's Vietnamese.” 

“I've never met anyone from Vietnam. I thought they were normal size.”

“I'm an exception.” I cross my fingers and hope he won't ask any followups. 

“What're you doing in my vent?” 

“I'm bored. Looking for a chat. Maybe play some cards.”

“You pulling my leg?” 

“No.”

“All night?”

“I'm not tired.”



09/12/52 (9:07 AM)


“The case for the prosecution is this: Craig deliberately and willfully murdered that police constable and thereafter gloried in the murder; that Bentley incited Craig to begin the shooting and, although technically under arrest at the actual time of the killing of Miles, was party to that murder and equally responsible in law.”

The prosecutor was Christmas Humphreys. Christmas was a Buddhist poet. He wrote “When I die, who dies?” Christmas led Derek's prosecution knowing Derek would hang if convicted. Mercy was an option, but Christmas wanted him dead.

There weren't any gasps of outrage. No stunned theatrics. Everyone in the Old Bailey was too busy coughing for melodrama. The dead wind over London wouldn't lift till later today. All the coal smoke piled up in the streets until the buses had to stop running it got so hard to see. They were already calling it the Great Smog.

I was coughing too, but no one noticed. I hid behind a bust perched outside the gallery. 

“The death of an officer is always a tragedy,” Defense began. “But in this instance an accidental one. This 'incitement' my learned colleague for the Crown mentions has other, less explosive interpretations. The …”

“Is Defense referring to the phrase 'let him have it'?” The judge asked.

That got a reaction. 12 years ago a man named Appleby said those exact four words to a man named Ostler. Ostler shot and killed a police officer. They hung Appleby. I'd only read about it in books; the people in the courtroom lived it. 

“Yes, M'lud.”

“Are you continuing to assert your client never uttered that phrase?” The judge is Baron Goddard. We don't have titles in Canada; I'm probably messing that up. “May I remind you we have the sworn statements of three officers of the law to the contrary. Are you implying they are less trustworthy than a petty thief?”

“No, M'lud. I plan to suggest a more literal interpretation. DS Fairfax in his own words asked Chris Craig, the alleged shooter …”

“The shooter,” Rayner corrected.

“… the shooter to hand over his gun. Telling him to 'let him have it' might reasonably …”

“I see where you're going. That line of speculation has no place in this courtroom.”

Goddard couldn't let Defense string two sentences together. Screw his title.



27/01/53 (10:35 PM)


“That's a nasty cough you got there.” Derek towers over me on the other side of the table. “You should get that looked at when you're back in Vietnam.”

“I will.” He's trying to be kind; I don't tell him I'm from Canada.

“They gave me a thermos of tea if you'd like some. Iris always says it's good for what ails ya.”

“Thanks.”

The tea's strong. Bitter. Derek offers me his last sugar cube. I gouge a little out and drop it into the thimble I'm using for a mug. There isn't any milk.

“Iris is your sister?” 

Derek nods his head fast before he takes his first sip. “She's great.”

“She must be out of her mind worried about you. Your whole family must.”

“I didn't shoot nobody. They ain't gonna hang me. Not for somethin' I didn't do.”

“I hope not.” I mean it. Even knowing what I know.

“They wanted to hang me before New Years, but here I am. Dad says Parliament's working on a pardon. Dad wrote a letter to the Queen if that don't work. I'll be home by Easter, mark my words. All I gotta do is be good and wait.”



02/11/52 (9:34 PM)


“I'm a police officer.” Fairfax looked winded having to climb the drainpipe. The fact that the perps were hiding by the time he reached the roof didn't help his mood. “Come out from behind that stack.”

Nothing had happened yet. No shots. Nobody killed. I could keep track of everyone. Derek and Craig were behind the lift house. Fairfax stood a few meters away where he'd climbed up. PC Claude Pain made it to the roof on a borrowed ladder. Norman Harrison was trying to make it across from a neighbor's rooftop. James McDonald was six feet up the drainpipe getting nowhere fast he was so out of shape.

Derek gave up immediately. He had brass knuckles and a knife in his pocket, but he didn't pull them out. Didn't resist as Fairfax pulled him to the side of the stack opposite Craig.

Derek didn't try to run till Fairfax tried to backhand him.

My heart jumped when the bullet slammed into Fairfax's shoulder. I was so focused on what Bentley and he were supposed to say it hadn't occurred to me they wouldn't say anything.

Craig winged Fairfax; Sidney Miles was going to die.


11/12/52 (12:32 PM)


After three days of hearing Judge Goddard make the prosecution's case the jury only needed 75 minutes to convict. Fairfax, Harrison, and McDonald all testified Derek said and did things I know he didn't. Harrison and McDonald weren't even on the damn roof when Fairfax was shot. Pain was. He didn't testify.

Derek didn't pull the trigger. Hadn't shouted orders. He'd been under arrest when Miles was shot. Derek couldn't read the statement the cops said he'd dictated. He misspelled his own name the first time he tried to sign it. The thing read like a cop wrote it to impress a judge.

Craig's sixteen. Too young to hang. But a cop's dead and everybody's out for blood.

I knew what was coming, but I cried when the jury foreman answered “guilty”.

The bailiff placed a black silk square over Goddard's head. I could barely stand to look at him let alone listen. I watched the slow twist of a smile worm its way out of his dour expression as he told a 19 year old boy he was going to die. That he deserved to die. I don't hate anyone, but I hate Goddard.

I'd read about the accusations Goddard's clerk made. About the judge's reaction to handing down the death sentence. Why he needed a change of pants after sending someone to the gallows. I always thought it was bullshit. No one could be that wicked.

I'm not so sure now.



28/01/53 (7:47 AM)


I'm wired and tired staying up all night. I listen to Derek's bad jokes, his insistence they can't hang him, his stories about his family and dogs. We play cards even though they're bigger than me. I shouldn't have introduced myself; now I have to say goodbye.

“Do you know the story of Merlin?” I ask Derek.

“King Arthur?”

“Yeah.”

“I guess.”

“Merlin lived his life backwards. He didn't know the past cause he hadn't lived it yet, but he remembered the future. Does that make any sense?”

Derek doesn't understand, but he nods anyway.

“I'm like that. Sorta. You don't know it, but you're very important. Once people find out all the mistakes they made with your case they're going to change things. What they did to you they won't be able to do to anyone else ever again.”

“No one else's gonna have to wait all night to be pardoned?” 

“no”

“Is that why you're here?”

“Where I come from there are people who want to forget you happened. Want to lie about you. I came here so they can't.”

The door opens with Derek's last breakfast. I hide behind the cards.

“I'll sneak you some food later,” Derek whispers to me. 

Derek's almost out of later.


02/11/52 (9:50 PM)


The police were issued guns. Snipers took up positions in neighbor's gardens and roofs. The alleys and streets were crammed with firetrucks and ambulances. All for one man with a gun too big for his bullets.

Derek did nothing but cry since Fairfax was hit.

I counted the shots; Craig ran out of ammo before Miles made it to the roof. 

I closed my eyes and let the recorders do their work. The future might need to know which sniper killed Miles, but I don't.



28/01/53 (9:00 AM)


The cell door opens. Two uniformed guards and two men in suits enter. Derek thinks they're here to give him his pardon. He's given a cup of brandy and an order to drink instead.

The hangman in the suit shakes Derek's hand before his assistant binds Derek's wrists.

“It's all right, Derek,” the hangman says, patting his shoulder. “Follow me.”

The gallows is on the other side of Derek's cell.

Derek walks unaided to the chalked off mark on the floor. 

“I didn't say it. I didn't tell him to shoot that policeman.” They're Derek's last words.

The white cap goes over his head before the noose goes round his neck. His legs are bound with leather straps. The hangman kicks the release bolt that kept the lever cocked. Derek's floor disappears.

Derek Bentley died almost instantly twelve seconds after the door opened.



02/07/53


I'm miles from civilization. My equipment says I'm where I'm supposed to be.

In thirty years there'll be a McDonald's where that tree stands. It'll be open for decades. Abandoned longer. I'll be 26 when they raze the husk and find my three inch corpse in the rubble.

They'll find my note telling them the when, where, and why to send me back. They'll find my tapes. They won't play them back until after future me, younger me is in 1952. It's all Schr√∂dinger data until I walk through that door three months ago, two hundred years from now.

They can only make a very small door. Not big enough for normal size people. Not big enough for the machines that could make me big again or open a door to the future.

I didn't see my body. They didn't tell me how old I was when I died.

The cough has been getting worse.

It's been a very bad winter. I won't be home for Easter either.




References:

Let Him Dangle by Elvis Costello. The first time I'd heard about the Bentley case was in this song. There's legitimate doubt that Derek ever said "let him have it, Chris" and the bit about the hangman doesn't jibe with my research, but the basic story is there and powerfully told.

Let Him Have It the 1991 film based on the events. Derek's sister worked with the production team. It's believed that this film put Derek's case back in the public eye leading to a reexamination of the case. Christopher Eccelston gives an excellent performance as Derek. 

To Encourage The Others by David Yallop. Yallop's definitive work on the subject. The author interviewed dozens of people involved with every aspect of the case. Very detailed, but accessible reading. If you want to know more about this story I highly recommend this book.

Case Notes S1E1 A podcast about forensic linguistics and its use in proving the confession Derek signed was dictated by the police. Thanks to Aborigen for pointing this one my way. At one point I debated about showing this in the story, but decided it would take up too much of my space and be too much of a stretch for my shrunken narrator.


Notes:

Derek Bentley was given a Royal Pardon in 1993 forty years too late. The conviction stood another five years until the Court of Appeals threw it out. Derek's sister Iris died the year before.

Chris Craig. The version of this story submitted to SizeRiot replaces Chris Craig with his older brother Niven. Chris was 16 when he and Derek climbed onto that warehouse roof. Too young to face capital punishment and too young to be in a SizeRiot story. His brother Niven was 26 at the time. The story as submitted references a technicality that kept the shooter from facing the gallows. This version puts Chris back in the story. Chris turned his life around after a ten year stretch in jail. He gave up petty crime and became a plumber.

The line "a gun too big for his bullets" was literal. Chris had a large collection of handguns, but had to scrounge for ammunition. He had to modify smaller rounds to fire in the larger guns. On the night of the robbery his gun misfired twice because of this. 

Judge Goddard was a piece of work. He tried to bring back flogging as a form of punishment claiming it would reduce the growing crime rate (which wasn't actually growing). After he died his clerk wrote a book about him in which he claimed the judge needed a change of pants after passing the death sentence cause he'd ejaculate after giving it out. I think that's bullshit, but the fact there weren't cries of outrage over the accusation speaks volumes about Goddard's character.

The defense didn't get opening remarks in the real court case. They had the option of having a closing argument or calling witnesses. Derek's parents waited till the end of the trial thinking they'd get called to the witness stand, but the defense decided to bet it all on their closing argument.

The public defenders who took on the case had been heard to say they wanted to see both men hung.

The Great Smog of London ended the day Derek's trial started. You can't make that shit up. Well you can, but people look at you funny and shake their heads.


Regarding size:

A number of readers commented on the lack of focus on size in this story. That's fair. I wanted to put a spotlight on a moment in history with a narrator who both was an eyewitness to events and knew how history would be written. As soon as I'd decided time travel was part of the plot I knew it would feature a tiny narrator. I stole the idea of shrinking to fit through a narrow time window from the Time Pool stories in the Atom comics of the 60s. In fairness they stole the idea from another comic from 1940. I added consequences to make the tone match the story I was telling.

Some readers have suggested I could have taken the size element out and not notice any difference. That's possible, but I wouldn't have written that story. Mihn's size meant they could be in the center of the action on the night in question and gave them the ability to be with Derek on his final night. Another technology could be used, but the ones I came up with would either distance them (using a drone) or made them superhuman (invisibility, teleportation, etc). Having a normal sized Mihn try to pass as a reporter would have gotten them into the courthouse to witness the case play out, but not Derek's cell that night. I've been bouncing ideas around for other work arounds (bribery, Jedi mind tricks, etc), but none work for me as well as shrinking.

For me the fact that Minh can't enter society is a huge part of the character. Both Derek and Mihn are kept apart from the rest of the world. Derek by his sentence; Mihn by their size. There are rules for time travel, but Mihn starts the story breaking them. If Mihn were normal sized I'd have to come up with a damn good reason why they didn't go to a doctor about that cough. Or change the story and have Mihn live out the next 50 years under an assumed name. That works as a story (my brain's already mulling over the plot for that), but it's not the one I wanted to tell. 

All that being said, this may be a size story for me because I want it to be. I might be too close to the oak to see the forest.

If you're looking for more of a size focused piece might I suggest Overwhelm Me A Little. It's takes a little while for the size to come into play, but once it does ... 


2 comments:

  1. Truculently, it somehow never occurred to me that this might have been based on a true story and I therefore failed to research the names and appreciate the context. I vaguely remember Let Him Have It when it came out, but I never saw it.

    The jumps between the robbery, the trial, and the cell were very tight and well-paced. Despite having a narrator who knows almost how everything is going to happen, you sustained an escalating tension all the way to the end. "Derek's almost out of later" still stings.

    Looking forward to your size treatment of Shallow Grave.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I should have added the "based on a true story" for the contest as well. It didn't occur to me until I was putting the blog post together.

      Thank you for the kind words. There's still probably too many moving parts, but I'll need to stew about the best way to trim things down.

      Now I have to watch Shallow Grave.

      Delete

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