Hanging Club by Tony Parsons is book #3 in the Max Wolfe Series (Available November 1, 2016).
A band of vigilante executioners roam the hot summer nights, abducting evil men who they judge unworthy of living and hanging them by the neck until dead. Sentenced to death is the gang member who abused dozens of vulnerable girls, the wealthy drunk driver who mowed down a child, the drug addict who put a pensioner in a coma and the hate preacher calling for the murder of British troops. But do these rogue hangmen crave true justice—or just blood?
As the bodies pile up and violence explodes all over the sweltering city, DC Max Wolfe—dog lover, single parent, defender of the weak—embarks on his most dangerous investigation yet, hunting a righteous gang of vigilante killers who many believe to be heroes. The search will take Max from squalid backstreets, where religious fanaticism breeds, to mansions in mourning and all the way to the secret rooms of power where decisions are weighed about life and death. But before The Hanging Club is confronted, Max Wolfe must learn some painful truths about the fragile line between good and evil, innocence and guilt, justice and retribution. And discover that the lust for revenge starts very close to home.
We sat in Court One at the Old Bailey and we waited for justice.
‘All rise,’ the bailiff said.
I stood up, never letting go of the hand of the woman next to me. It had been a long day. But finally it was coming to the end.
We were there for the man she had been married to for nearly twenty years, a man I had never known in life, although I had watched him die perhaps a hundred times.
I had watched him come out of their modest house in his pyjamas on a soft spring evening, a middle-aged man wearing carpet slippers, wanting to do only what was right, wanting to do nothing more than what was decent and good, wanting – above all – to protect his family, and I had watched the three young men who now stood in the dock knock him to the ground and kick him to death.
I had watched him die a hundred times because one of the young men in the dock had filmed it on his phone, the small screen shaking with mirth, rocking with laughter, the picture sharp in the clear light of a March evening. I had watched him die again and again and again, until my head was full of a silent scream that stayed with me in my dreams.
‘He was a good man,’ his widow, Alice, whispered, gripping my hand tight, shaking it for emphasis, and I nodded, feeling her fingers dig deep into my palm. On her far side were her two teenage children, a girl of around sixteen and a boy a year younger, and beyond them a young woman in her late twenties, the FLO – Family Liaison Officer.
I believed the Central Criminal Court – the proper name of the Old Bailey – was no place for children, especially children who had watched their father being murdered from the window of their home.
The FLO – a decent, caring, university-educated young woman who still believed that this world is essentially a benign place – said that they were here for closure. But closure was the wrong word for what they wanted in court number one.
They wanted justice.
And they needed it if their world would ever again make any kind of sense.
When I had first gone to their home with my colleagues DCI Pat Whitestone and DC Edie Wren on that March evening, the last chill of winter had still been clinging on. Now it was July and the city was wilting in the hottest summer since records began. Only a few months had gone by but the woman and her children were all visibly older, and it was more than just passing time. The three of them had been worn down by the brain-numbing shock of violent crime.
For our Murder Investigation Team at Homicide and Serious Crime Command, West End Central, 27 Savile Row, the case had been straightforward. You could not call it routine, because a man having his life brutally taken can never be considered routine. But there was incriminating evidence all over the smart-phones of these three blank-faced morons in the dock, and the blood of the dead man was all over their hands and their clothes. It was an easy day at the office for our CSIs.
We were not hunting criminal masterminds. When we arrested them, they still had fresh blood on their trainers. They were just three thick yobs who took it all much too far.
But the case felt personal for me.
Because I knew him. The dead man. That lost husband, that stolen father. Steve Goddard. Forty years old.
I had never met him in life but I knew what made him leave his house when the three yobs were urinating on his wife’s car. I understood him. I got it. He could have let it go – ignored the noise, the laughter, the obscene insult to his family and the street where he lived, the mocking of all that he loved.
And I could even understand that it made no rational sense at all to go out there in his carpet slippers to confront them. I could see why it was not worth it, why he should have turned up the television and drawn the curtains, and watched his children grow up and get married and have their own children, and why he should have stayed indoors so that he could grow old with his wife. I got all that.
But above all I understood why this decent man did not have it in him to do nothing.
‘Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?’ said the judge.
The jury spokesman cleared his throat. I felt Alice’s fingernails digging into my palm once more, deeper now. The faces of the three defendants – immobile with a kind of surly stupidity through most of the trial – now registered the first stirrings of fear.
‘Yes, Your Honour, we have,’ said the jury spokesman.
Juries don’t give reasons. Juries don’t have to give reasons. Juries just give verdicts.
And juries have no say in sentencing. We all looked at the judge, a papery-faced old man who peered at us from under his wig and over his reading glasses as if he knew the secrets of our souls.
‘Involuntary manslaughter is a serious offence,’ intoned the judge, glowering at the court, his voice like thunder. ‘It carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.’
A cry of, ‘No!’ from the public gallery. It was a woman with a barbed-wire tattoo on her bare arms. She must be one of the boy’s mothers, I thought, because none of their fathers had been spotted for nearly twenty years.
The judge rapped his gavel and demanded order or he would clear the court.
‘Public concern and the need for deterrence must be reflected in the sentence passed by the court,’ he continued. ‘But the Criminal Justice Act requires a court addressing seriousness to consider the offender’s culpability in committing the offence. And I accept the probability that the deceased was dead before he hit the ground due to a subarachnoid haemorrhage, making this a single punch manslaughter case.’
‘But what does that mean?’ the youngest child, the boy – called Steve, like his dad – murmured to his mother, and she shushed him, clinging on to good manners even in this place, even now.
It meant they would be home by Christmas, I thought, my stomach falling away.
It meant the bastards would get away with it.
It meant that it didn’t matter that they had kicked Steve Goddard’s head when he lay on the ground. It did not matter that they had urinated on his body and posted it on YouTube.
None of that mattered because the judge had swallowed the defence’s evidence that the man who attacked three unarmed boys was dead before he hit the ground due to a pre-existing medical condition.
Get the right brief and you can worm your way out of anything.
‘I am also obliged to accept the mitigating factor of self-defence, as the deceased was attempting to assault the defendants,’ said the judge. ‘I note you are all of good character. And I therefore sentence you to twelve months’ imprisonment.’
It was over.
I looked at Alice Goddard’s face. She didn’t understand any of it. She didn’t understand why her husband was dead thirty years before his time. She did not understand what the judge had said or why the defendants were laughing while her two children were quietly weeping. I wanted to say something to them but there was nothing to say. I had no words to offer and no comfort to give.
Alice Goddard let go of my hand. It was over for everybody apart from her and her two children. It would never be over for them.
Alice was smiling, and it tore at my heart. A tight, terrible smile.
‘It’s all right, Max,’ she said. ‘Really. Nothing was going to bring my Steve back, was it?’
She was anxious to make it clear that she did not blame me.
I looked at the defendants. They knew me. I knew them. I had seen one of them weeping for his mother in the interview room. I saw another one of them wet his pants at the prospect of imprisonment. And I saw the other one empty-eyed and indifferent through the entire process, beyond recall, beyond hope.
When they had been arrested, and when they were questioned, and when they were charged, the three young men had seemed very different.
A coward. A weakling. And a bully.
Now they were one again. Now they were a gang again. Yes, they were going down, but they would be home in six months. Taking a life would have no real impact on their own lives. It would no doubt give them a certain status in the cruel little world they lived in.
The anger unfurled inside me and suddenly I was out of my seat and walking towards them. But the court bailiff blocked my path, his hands slightly raised to show me his meaty palms, but saying nothing and offering no threat if I dropped it right here.
‘Leave it, sir,’ he said.
So I did the smart thing. I did nothing.
He was a typical Old Bailey bailiff with a demeanour somewhere between a diplomat and a bouncer, and he looked at me sympathetically with the faintest hint of a smile – sad, not mocking – and I let the moment pass, choking down the sickness that came with the rage.
And my face was hot with shame.
The three youths in the dock smirked at me before they were taken down.
I had seen that look before.
Too many times.
It was the look of someone who knows they just got away with murder.
Copyright © 2016 Tony Parsons.
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TONY PARSONS is an award-winning journalist and the international bestselling author of more than ten novels, including Man and Boy, winner of the Book of the Year prize, One for My Baby, and Man and Wife, among others. He lives in London.