NOTE OF SUSPICION
Another day, another dollar thought Judge Embert Wimple as he applied his forefingers to a small spot on his chin. He burst the offender, applied a blob of antiseptic cream and was then ready to be whisked off to officiate at another bout of legal tussling. The last year had been busy one and at almost eighty-four, the judge was feeling the strain of offering what was ostensibly part-time assistance to his colleagues. In fact, having agreed to put in two days a week after reaching seventy-five, he was now employed almost every weekday and would have thrown in the towel, but for the latest domestic development.
Mrs Esmeralda Wimple, having in what seemed next to no time become an accomplished painter and teacher, had once again threatened to turn her hand to more physical things – this time woodcarving. His honour had reacted as he had to her abandoned sculpting and pottery ambitions, in that he was striving to discourage the departure and had pointed out that at his wife’s age, which was close to his own, her body would not take kindly to the necessary exertions. In fact, his real concern was the horrifying thought of long sessions of chipping and rasping around the house. Embert Wimple was an extreme devotee of peace and quiet. One of his juniors, a stripling of seventy-two, had recently observed that when the old man was finally consigned to the grave, he would notice no difference in the noise level around him.
Mrs Wimple, who had shrugged off her few recent muscle and joint twinges, thanks – she maintained – to her habit of swigging copious quantities of cod liver oil, straight from the bottle, had pooh-poohed her husband’s fears. Still, she was touched by his concern for her health and had agreed to postpone a decision. An uneasy truce prevailed at maison Wimple.
It was not until he reached his chambers that the judge acquainted himself with the day’s business, which consisted of one case – Ashton versus Weekes – in which the plaintiff alleged that he been pressured into a transaction in which he had been duped. Well, at least it didn’t seem to be another of those silly neighbourhood things.
The plaintiff, Selwyn Ashton, was represented by the youthful, thrusting Cedric Thistle, the defendant George Weekes by the older, graver Henry Bullivant. Both counsels were known to Judge Wimple, though neither entertained any serious thought of being addressed correctly. The judge was increasingly inclined to think of people he had known half a century earlier. Rustling his papers, he addressed Thistle. “Let us hear your case, Mr Armitage.”
Not being the servile type, Thistle offered a barely noticeable nod. “May it please Your Honour, my client seeks satisfaction, having been swindled by the defendant, perhaps with the collusion of a third party, not represented here.”
“Really,” said the judge. “Then it seems we are short of a quorum, so to speak. However, please carry on.”
“We speak of an incident which took place on the seventeenth of December last. My client had been working late and on his way home he called at the City Tavern which, as Your Honour may be aware, is quite close to us here. Mr Ashton, who does not normally patronise public houses, intended to drink a pint of beer and proceed homewards. He was engaged in conversation by the defendant, who seemed to be … ah… imbued with the Christmas spirit. Mr Weekes had noted that my client was carrying a package, wrapped in decorative paper. At one point, the barman referred jokingly to this item, which my client said was a bottle of Armagnac, a distinctive type of French brandy, not widely obtainable. The defendant expressed a wish to buy the liquor from my client, and became most vociferous. He was aided and abetted by the barman, who incited my client to part with the item, suggesting that this would be an appropriate seasonal gesture. The defendant became aggressive and Mr Ashton began to feel himself intimidated. Furthermore, he recalled that the off-licence shop in which he had bought the brandy had had a further bottle on display and as far as he knew, was still open for business.”
Here, Thistle paused to arrange his thoughts, masking this by pretending to take a sip of water before proceeding: “Fearing for his safety, my client said that he might consider selling the bottle, but pointed out that he had paid fourteen pounds for it, Armagnac being none too common and usually expensive. The defendant brandished a banknote and demanded that a deal be done forthwith. The barman again intervened, pressing my client to conclude the proposed transaction. Mr Ashton did so, saying that he would accept what he had paid – he was by then becoming desperate to get out of the situation. He took the banknote, the denomination being twenty-five pounds, giving the defendant eleven pounds in change. He then left the establishment, returning to the off-licence shop, where he tried to buy a further bottle to replace original one, only to find that his twenty-five pound note was counterfeit.”
“Astounding,” barked the judge. “You seem to be saying that your client accepted a twenty-five pound note. I think an explanation might be in order.”
Thistle nodded. “Your Honour, my client is not what one might call a man of the world. He has little day to day contact with cash, as he settles most of his transactions by credit card and normally carries little money about his person. On account of the approach of Christmas, the evening in question was an exception.”
“I see,” said the judge, “but this seems to be contradictory. On the one hand you imply that your client has a very simple lifestyle and on the other hand, he seems to be fairly sophisticated, in that he is accustomed to using a credit card. I am wondering how he came to be deceived in the way you suggest. Can you enlighten me?”
“I fear not, Your Honour. Perhaps we cannot do more than conjecture as to how many people might have been fooled in the same way. I am able to say only that Mr Ashton, having ascertained the true state of affairs from his visit to the off-licence shop, hurried back to the City Tavern, to find that it was closed. He was distressed, as was his wife, since the Armagnac was intended for a double celebration, the couple marking their wedding anniversary as well as Christmas. The following evening, my client returned to the City Tavern to make enquiries. For a time, no-one could help him, then an elderly patron intervened, remarking that there had been complicity between the defendant and the barman, who seemed to be well acquainted with one another. The old gentleman said that he had heard the barman and the defendant agreeing to collaborate in seeking a gullible patron whom they could snare.”
“Indeed,” said the judge. “Was any effort made to contact this barman?”
“Yes, Your Honour. However, it appears that he was a relief worker, employed by various local public houses. He seems to have vanished. However, the old gentleman I mentioned informed my client that he had often seen the defendant in other local hostelries, most frequently in the Crescent Bar, which is not far from the City Tavern. In addition to the question of principle, the loss to Mr Ashton was not insignificant. He decided to pursue the matter. However, he was apprehensive about confronting Mr Weekes, who had shown evidence of violent tendencies. My client therefore enlisted the aid of two burly office colleagues, who accompanied him for three successive evenings, during which they called at the Crescent Bar. The first two visits were abortive, but on the third evening, the defendant also appeared. Mr Ashton, accompanied by his two colleagues, accosted Mr Weekes and demanded satisfaction.”
“Slapped his man’s face with the proverbial gauntlet, did he?” said the judge.
“Your Honour’s metaphor captures the spirit exactly.”
“And in case of a duel, Mr Ashton had his seconds to hand.”
“One might phrase it so, Your Honour.”
“I see. Armagnac at dawn, perhaps. Please continue.”
“There is little more to say. Mr Weekes laughed at my client and told him to do his worst, also recommending Mr Ashton might put his complaint in a place where, as Mr Weekes phrased it ‘the Sun did not shine’.”
His honour nodded: “I see. This concluded the interview, did it?”
“Yes. However, my client made further enquiries and was able to establish the defendant’s name and address, so that he could initiate this action.”
“Interesting,” said the judge. For one who is in your words not a man of the world, he appears to have been both ingenious and resolute.”
“Yes, Your Honour. The worm turned, so to speak.”
“As well it might in such circumstances. Now, I think it is time to hear from the defence.” He turned Bullivant. “Your comments, Mr Bulmer.”
Defending counsel was flattered by this degree of accuracy. “Thank you, Your Honour. This is predominantly a matter of interpretation. My client did indeed buy the bottle of brandy from Mr Ashton on the occasion in question. However, like the plaintiff, he is an honest simple trusting man and had himself accepted the twenty-five pound note earlier that same day, in settlement of a wager.”
“No doubt involving another man in a pub,” said the judge.
“I believe so. However, overjoyed by his earlier good fortune, Mr Weekes proffered the banknote in good faith. He had been as much misled as was the plaintiff. The whole affair was most unfortunate. As to the alleged collusion between my client and the elusive barman, there was none. Mr Weekes met the man for the first and only time that evening. My client has himself been at pains to locate the man who passed him the twenty-five pound note, but has so far been unsuccessful. His efforts continue. Further, he wishes to place on record that he was extremely alarmed by the appearance of the plaintiff and his colleagues at the Crescent Bar. Far from adopting a truculent attitude, he was profoundly glad to escape unscathed from the encounter. The suggestion that he was less than friendly when the transaction took place at the City Tavern is quite improper. Mr Weekes may have been slightly inebriated, but he is the most mild-mannered of men.”
His honour stared at the litigants, noting the dapper appearance of the small, lightly-built plaintiff and the much larger, red-faced, stubble-jawed mass of the defendant, who presented a disconcerting sight. “Very well,” he said. “Now, if both parties are finished, I believe I am in a position to make a decision. Does anyone wish to say more?”
No-one did, so the judge swept aside his papers and looked hard at the advocates and their clients. “I have been in the legal profession for over sixty years,” he said, “and am reliev . . . troubled to note that the misdeeds of humankind continue to offer fresh revelations. Sometimes I think that, in trying to get to the truth of cases like this, I would be as well off dispensing with any other means available to me and using a hazel twig.
“In a way, I am heartened to learn that we still have two people who are so unworldly as to accept a twenty-five note as a valid item of currency. Perhaps that indicates that not everyone in this land is devious. As to the representations made, I think it is a pity that we do not have with us the third party, who passed the banknote to Mr Weekes. Still, possibly that would complicate matters. As to the stories of the litigants, I am disposed to accept that Mr Ashton is not a regular public house patron, whereas Mr Weekes clearly is – not that this basically influences the matter. It seems to me that Mr Ashton was out of his depth and Mr Weekes was not. As for the involvement of the mysterious barman, I think that is extraneous, and anyway, we cannot deal with him.”
The judge paused for several seconds to study his notes. Though aware that they did not include anything relevant to the case, he derived some satisfaction from his scribbling, which consisted of several attempts – the last one successful – to solve a quadratic equation. He continued: “My decision is that Mr Weekes must make every effort to restore, as far as possible, the situation which pertained before the incident in the City Tavern. To this end, I am minded to adjourn this hearing for two weeks. In the meantime, I recommend that Mr Weekes occupy himself in finding a replacement bottle of Armagnac, at as near as possible to the same price as the one bought by Mr Ashton. I wish to see him hand over the merchandise to the plaintiff, together with the cash balance, making up the total of twenty-five pounds. And here, I would caution Mr Ashton against accepting an eleven-pound note. As to a possible fine, I will reserve judgement. Proceedings adjourned.”