The Butterfly Catchers

The Butterfly Catchers is inspired by three brutal murders which took place in the Old Farmhouse on my street, in 1932. Those murders weren't solved - but in my story, they are...

Joel Tremethick is found cradling the bodies of Robert Herwood and his wife Antigone, his best friends since university. Their tiny newborn child lies with them.The justice system, along with Robert and Antigone's friends, are quick to assume that he is guilty. Only Elise, Robert's sister, realises that he isn't guilty of the murders, and sets out to find out what really happened.

The story plays in and out of Joel's memories and the present, and gradually unravels how he was caught and held in their obsessive, unhealthy relationship. Little by little, the horrifying truth emerges, and it isn't what any of them expected. Well, any of them except one...

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5. Sentencing

They stepped straight from the house into her father’s Crossley. The six steps between were enough to make her aware that she badly wanted to walk the distance to the courts, but the press were here even now and there would be no escaping them. She had already tried imagining that it was Hugo’s camera and he was there behind it trying to make her laugh, but it was so very far removed as to be a ridiculous pretence.

            Minchin closed the door behind her and as she caught his eye through the glass, he gave her a nod, and she wondered whether the intent way he held her gaze was sympathetic or otherwise. She nodded in return, quickly, and looked away, having to focus on her feet to keep them still. Her father let out the choke and started the engine.

            “I hope the insurers don’t know that I’m out driving today, in a state of anxiety and grief,” he said, with only the ghost of his usual indignation. “They might decide that my premium should be increased in case I should run someone down and then flee to Africa.”

            It was really just a ritual of Philip’s, this grumbling about the insurance. For fifteen months it had kept him in a state of outrage that the government seemed to think a chap would cause damage crashing his car and then not pay reparations. “A gentleman acknowledges his errors and pays for them,” he had said (with the approximate frequency with which he had climbed into his car). “I resent being treated as some sort of common swindler.”

            He seemed to have decided that his rituals should be observed even now, when insurance irritations seemed incomprehensible. Elise nodded her head and kept silent, which was not so very different from how she had behaved before, however cut off from the rest of her life she felt.

            They left Sidgewick Avenue, the speed of the car tortuously slow to her. It seemed to crawl past the overwhelming greenery and new life of the Backs, and she felt a surge of nausea at the sickly smell of blossoms creeping in through the window beside her father. She wanted to be past it, and yet stayed watching it all; gazed at the fulsome red tulips and the bees touching each one in term until she imagined she could see each particle of pollen inside them; and then watched a chubby toddler run from his Nanny before being scooped up to his squealing delight. She kept watching until she could no longer see them even by craning her neck, and then stared at a pair of puppies tumbling around in the green grass. It was impossible not to watch such a gorgeous display of mockery, as if the city had brought out its freshest and most fecund sights for a day devoted to killing.

            The car moved at last between the stone and brickwork of the colleges, which should have been a comfort, but as she realised how close they were now her every feeling became focused on terror. She didn’t want to see him, would do anything not to see him, but oh how she had longed for this day nonetheless.

            The gates of the courthouse appeared, and three uniformed constables were holding the many onlookers at bay whilst they drove into the gloom under the archway. She looked down to gather her things and realised that she was missing a glove, and this became the most important single thing to her as the car drew up. She scrabbled for it in her bag, under the seat, and in the footwell until at last she thought to look in her pocket and drew it out and onto her hand like a mascot.

            That was all, and they were inside the glossy oak and shadowy stone of the courthouse. She wasn’t sure it was her that they showed into the room, a vertiginously high chamber with a viewing gallery which reminded her of the Royal Albert Hall in miniature. She knew they were looking at her, could feel the heat of their gaze on her cheeks. She heard a few words as they were ushered forwards. His sister. The model. I didn’t think she would come.

            The whispering continued as they sat in the places they had chosen, four rows from the front and near the aisle in case they needed to leave quickly. She felt like running now, before the ranks of witnesses began to shift in to faces she recognised.

Even as she thought it, her gaze snagged on the curved back of a man head and shoulders taller than everyone else, and then moved aside and down to find a sleek blonde head. Maxwell the bully, she thought, and Annabel, heiress to a vast family fortune, to whom Robert had only ever referred to as The Stunner. While Elise waited anxiously for them to turn and see her, The Stunner angled her head to speak with her fiancé, and Elise saw a smooth cheek bare of any blush, the corner of some unadorned lips and the edge of an eye which looked naked without careful shadowing.

It was disconcerting to see Annabel without the colourful exaggerations of her make-up. Elise supposed it was a mark of respect, and should have appreciated it, but it only served to remind her that everything had changed.

She saw Maxwell place a hand on her shoulder, his head never even turning in response, and it was such a characteristically arrogant motion that it sent her eyes moving away in irritation to find other familiar forms. She quickly saw Schulener and Rachel a row behind the couple. Rachel was as elegant and delicately made up as always, and Schulener’s slightly wild hair looked all the more excessive next to her groomed perfection. It was strange that the pang she felt in seeing her friend almost extended to her bad-tempered companion, too. There was a great deal that was ridiculous in Schulener, but he was one of Robert’s, and had been from the beginning.

She looked for Waters next, wondering if he would be tall enough to show above the heads in front of her, but before she was ready they were all standing as the prisoner was led in.

            She hadn’t meant to stand, but even with the shaking of her legs it was easier than choosing to sit. They were a noticeable pair, Elise and her father, each of them tall and each of them dressed in stark black. But Joel’s eyes were on the judge as he was led in shortly afterwards, and then on the jury at their entrance, so she was free to stare at him and hungrily hunt out the differences.

            He was thinner, she saw, despite never having carried much extra weight. And he was pale to the point that he looked ill. But the self-possession was all there. e N

Nothing else on his face would have told her that he was waiting to find out whether he lived or died, or that he felt a shred of regret. He didn’t feel anything, she realised, and it astonished her that he could ever have fooled them all into believing otherwise. The hatred she had been waiting to pour on him almost threatened to spill out then and there in anger. And it was a hatred built nine tenths on shame that she could have been so blind.

            The people around her started to take their seats again and she sat with them, hurriedly, still afraid of being seen despite her hatred. The judge was speaking and she swung her head to look at him abruptly, remembering that the words were the most important thing here.

            “...to a decision?” she heard. It was a foolish question. Of course they had come to their decision. That was why they were all here, summoned to hear it.

            “We have.” The head juror looked like a bank clerk. She wondered if he might work at Fitzsimmons’ and know her father, but she supposed they wouldn’t let someone known to the family be a juror.

            “How do you find the defendant on the charge of murdering Robert Herwood?” the judge went on. A ritual. It was all a ritual.

            “Guilty,” the little bank clerk said.

            She put a hand out to the chair in front of her as a great lurch seemed to come from her stomach.

            “You’re happy about it. You’re happy. Vindicated. Revenged,” she whispered to herself, but it didn’t seem to hold the darkly-polished room together as it fractured around her.

            “And how do you find the defendant on the charge of murdering Antigone Herwood?”

            “Guilty.”

            She didn’t want to think about Tiggy. She didn’t want to remember his eyes following the dazzling figure around the room. She didn’t want to think about the three of them together, always together, inseparably.

            “And on the final charge of the murder of the infant Ophelia Herwood?”

            “Not guilty.”

            And immediately, out of all context, there was laughter. It was like being struck across the face. She was suddenly back in that room, on a solid wooden chair with the tweed-clad back of another spectator in front of her and the smell of old law in her nose.

            Her eyes locked onto Joel and she saw that it was him. He was laughing, a bleak, bitter laugh, turning to look out into the courtroom as if to share the joke with them.

            She felt it the moment his eyes found her. The recently-returned courtroom fell away again and she was alone with him, pinned down by him. It did something to him too. The laughter died in a moment. He seemed to start forward, until the restraining hand of the duty officer pulled him back to stand upright. 

            The judge wasn’t waiting. He was giving sentence, his voice ringing out like nemesis. “Joel Tremethick, you have been found guilty of two counts of murder by a jury of your peers. Due to the violence of your crimes and your lack of remorse, I sentence you to be taken to a place of execution in thirty days’ time and there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead. May our Lord God have mercy upon your soul.”

            But it was almost like the condemned man didn’t hear him. All the while he was looking at her, his eyes boring into Elise’s own with every part of him laid bare for her in supplication. Even when they started to lead him away, he was holding her with his green eyes, tearing into her until she couldn’t bear it any more but could do nothing but stare back.

She watched him all the way to the door, his head still turned and his eyes still on her. And then, as he disappeared and the silence broke into a wave of comment, she curled in on herself, her mouth stumbling over and over the same word.

           

 

Philip took a moment to collect himself and blink back the tiniest excess of salt water in his eyes, before turning to the chap from the City Council – Overbridge, was it? – who had the seat next to him. Overbridge  slapped his back heartily.  “I’m so glad the justice system has worked. Good show from Judge Upperton, eh?”

            Philip smiled, and nodded, at first one, then three, five, ten people all eager to offer their fervent congratulations. And he supposed he was relieved. God knew that he had prayed for the viper they had drawn into their family to be punished absolutely. It just seemed difficult to stir himself to feel victorious now. Perhaps when they hanged him it would be better.

            It took him some minutes to notice that Elise hadn’t risen with him and wasn’t waiting patiently at his side as he had expected. He looked down and saw her, hidden from the general view by the press of standing bodies around her, and saw that she was hunched over and hiding her face. He felt a moment of panic. He cast around for someone to pass charge onto, and realised in discomfort that there was nobody. But how was her father the right person when she was clearly upset?

            At the moment when he was about to put a tentative hand on her shoulder, he heard a familiar voice calling, “Sir,” and saw with a surge of relief that Minchin was making his way through the press of bodies. How good of the man to come. He must have walked, Philip supposed, and vowed to give him the pay rise which had fallen by the wayside during recent events.

            “Minchin,” he called, and then when the man was close to him, muttered, “Miss Elise is not well. Would you be so good as to take her to the car and see her home? I am more than happy to go on foot.”

“Of course, sir,” his butler said and bent to speak to his daughter. Philip hovered for a moment until Minchin had drawn her gently to her feet, and then he pressed his way through the crowd, glad to be able to leave them in peace.


 

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