The Fifth Witness

Only five people knew how James Davitt had been killed. Four of those were among the police officers who’d been trying to arrest him. The statements they gave afterwards were all consistent. They’d been stationed at the rear of the house where Davitt had been living under an assumed name. When their unit had kicked their way through the front door, the suspect had escaped through a window into the back garden.

He was carrying a pistol. All four of them were clear about that. They shouted a warning that they were armed and told him to throw down his gun. Davitt hesitated and then made a break for it. He scaled the garden wall and let himself down the other side into a narrow lane that led up from the street to a second-hand car lot. The officers went over the wall in pursuit. But in the seconds that followed, realising that he was trapped and that the police were everywhere, Davitt had turned and raised his gun at them. Another warning was shouted. That too was ignored. Fearing for his own and his fellow officer’s lives, one of the cops fired a single bullet to Davitt’s head. Despite their frantic efforts to keep him alive, he was pronounced dead half an hour later by a doctor who attended the scene.

But that wasn’t how the fifth witness remembered it. That wasn’t how he remembered it at all.

Tom Crowley had been fast asleep when he was woken by the sound of breaking glass, running, shouting and what sounded like muffled explosions. He looked at his clock. 2.00 a.m. Rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. He lived in a rough area of South London. There was often trouble in the night and he didn’t want to get involved. Didn’t want to see or hear anything. Didn’t want any trouble with local petty criminals or gangs. But when he heard the sound of voices and movement in the lane that ran under his slightly open bedroom window, his curiosity got the better of him. He went over and moved the curtain a few inches so he could see what was happening.

Below, a man seemed to be lying on the ground. There were a group of other men around him in dark overalls and baseball caps. Some were standing, some were crouching but it was dark and raining so it was difficult to see. But the prone man had his head raised and Tom was sure his arms were tied behind his back with white straps. Then there was an explosion like a box of fireworks being ignited by a loose match. A gunshot. Tom ducked down instinctively below the window sill.

There were shouts and screams from the lane: “What the fuck?! What the fuck…?!”

He didn’t dare look outside again. But outside came looking for him and there was a hammering on his front door. He ran downstairs and checked through the peephole. Two cops were there, with sub machine guns slung over their shoulders. They told him to evacuate the area as a ‘serious incident’ was taking place. So he got out and went with a neighbour to an all night burger bar a mile away.

When Tom got back a few hours later, the street was full of residents excited by the goings on in the night. The house where Davitt had lived and the lane where he had died were sealed off with tape. Meanwhile the first reporters were running around trying to get a story. The police allowed Tom to go back to his home and when the journalists realised he was virtually Davitt’s next door neighbour, they moved in.

Did you know the bloke who got killed?”

That was the first Tom knew that Davitt was dead. “He got killed?”

Sure—the cops shot the bastard.”

No, I didn’t know him. Everyone keeps themselves to themselves round here.”

OK—so did you hear the shootout?”

Tom was baffled, “I didn’t hear any shootout … I saw the police had a bloke on the ground, but I didn’t hear any shootout, no.”

You saw the police had a bloke on the ground…?”

Tom Crowley had made a terrible mistake.


The following day, Tom saw all the newspapers with their banner headlines—

Top Irish terrorist dies in gun battle with police.”

Fugitive bomber was preparing bloodbath say cops.”

The face of evil—hero cops take down merchant of death.”

But there were other, less sympathetic, headlines in the more pompous newspapers.

Eyewitness casts doubt on police version of killing.”

James Davitt ‘executed’ by police says witness.”

Terror suspect detained by police BEFORE death.”

At first Tom wondered where the papers had found this new witness—it took a few reports before he realised who it was. Him. And despite the fact he’d refused to give it to the reporters, in one article, he was identified by name. In another, his photo appeared, showing him at his front door. When he got back home from work, he began calling news desks and frantically trying to correct their mistakes.

But I never said that … where did you get my name from … I never said the police shot the bloke in cold blood…”

Bored receptionists promised to pass on his concerns; others suggested writing letters if he was unhappy with the reports or taking his case to the Press Complaints Council. But it was too late. While he was arguing with one woman on the phone, there was a knock on the front door.

He opened it to find two plain clothes policemen looking stony faced.

Mr Crowley? We understand you may be a material witness to the enquiry being conducted into the death of Mr James Davitt. We’d like you to come to Scotland Yard in the morning, answer a few questions and make a formal statement. We’ll send a car over for you.”

But I didn’t see anything.”

We understand from reports in the press that you did. But in any event, we’d like to speak to you anyway. Would you like a lawyer present?”

A lawyer? What the hell do I need a lawyer for? I haven’t done anything.”

You don’t need a lawyer sir but it might help if you want legal advice on any questions you may be asked. This is a serious matter…”

By the following morning, Tom Crowley was terrified. He stayed up until 2.00 a.m. checking the net for the latest on the Davitt killing. He soon found conspiracy websites were doing good business peddling newly minted theories. The consensus was that Davitt was whacked by the cops because he knew too much—although they were a bit hazy about what it was that he actually knew. But it was the readers’ comments that really worried Crowley.

What do you make of this eyewitness who’s contradicting the police story?”

I reckon he’ll have an ‘accident’ when he goes to give his statement…”

Nah—too crude. They’ll discredit him or fit him up. Leak stories about him to the newspapers. Drugs maybe. Sex offences most likely.”

Yeah—You know what Cardinal Richelieu said? ‘Give me six lines written by the most honest man and I’ll find something in it to hang him with’. To adapt that phrase—‘Give me a life lived by the most honest man and the cops will find something in it to hang him with’. That witness is going to get trashed.”

I reckon after a friendly chat with the Old Bill, he’ll remember that he doesn’t remember anything.”

If he’s got any sense he will…”

By the time the car arrived to take Crowley to make his statement, he was shell-shocked with fatigue, fear and had aimless words echoing around his inert mind.

They’ll discredit him, fit him up. Drugs maybe. Sex offences most likely…’

Give me a life lived by the most honest man and the cops will find something in it to hang him with”.

He wasn’t necessarily an honest man but Tom had always avoided trouble. But then he remembered the bitter custody battle with his ex and how she’d made a statement claiming he’d subjected her to violence. Of course that was rubbish. What had actually happened was she’d slapped him and he’d pushed her in retaliation. She’d slipped backwards and bumped her head. There was only a slight bruise. His lawyer had told him not to worry about it, accusations of that kind were routine in custody cases. But her statement was out there somewhere. It could be discovered and leaked to the press. Tom Crowley—wife beater.

And after his divorce, he’d lost it a bit and gone into a ‘bad place’ as counsellors like to say. He’d become a bit love struck with a young woman at work and repeatedly asked her out. Given the circumstances, he didn’t blame her for reporting him to HR for harassment. Now that report would be out there somewhere too and that could end up being leaked to the press. Tom Crowley—sex pest.

Then there was the time he’d been sharing a house with some students when he was at college. A friend of one them had come to stay. No one had liked this ‘friend’ especially after he was arrested for selling cannabis on the campus. The police had raided the house and found enough stuff hidden in the kitchen to charge the friend under ‘possession with intent to supply’. Of course the friend had promptly claimed that the stuff belonged to someone else. All the other residents, including Tom, were interviewed under caution by the drugs squad. No charges were ever brought because the police couldn’t prove who the weed belonged to. But that report would be out there somewhere. The police would give it to the papers. Tom Crowley—suspected drug dealer.


Are you alright Mr Crowley? You look terrible. Can I get you a drink of water?”

The interview room was straight out of one of those TV dramas. The detective who expressed concern when Tom came in was unfailingly polite and all smiles. His partner, who sat next to him, said little and looked like he was interviewing a particularly disgusting sex offender. There was recording equipment set up and on an adjacent table was a pile of the newspapers Crowley had been quoted in. When Tom had finished his drink, the two cops got down to business. Tom was too upset to catch their names but afterwards he remembered them as ‘Mr Nice’ and ‘Mr Nasty’. But he didn’t care about their names or their questions. Crowley had already decided on his strategy. When after a few preliminaries, the smiling Mr Nice asked him to give them a detailed account of what he’d seen when Davitt’s house was raided, Tom answered as defiantly as he could.

I didn’t see anything…”

Mr Nice looked baffled while Mr Nasty gave a humourless grin.

You didn’t see anything?”


Mr Nice sighed and reached for the pile of newspapers and opened one up. “But you’re quoted in the press Tom—in detail. We’ve spoken to the journalists concerned and they’ve got you on tape. How can you say you didn’t see anything?”

They made me say those things. I was coerced. They threatened me. I didn’t see anything. All that stuff there…” He gestured with his thumb at the papers, “It’s all made up. I didn’t see anything.”

I see…” Mr Nice turned off the device that was recording their conversation. “Look Tom, there’s going to be an inquest into Davitt’s death and you’ll be called as a witness. If you go into the witness box and deny you saw anything, you could be looking at a perjury charge. Is there some reason why you wouldn’t want to tell us what happened?”

The thing is, I didn’t see anything…” Crowley reached out for the empty cup of water, which vibrated slightly in his fingers when he held it. He put it back down. “Look boys, I know what your game is; you’re trying to catch me out. But it’s not going to work. I don’t want any trouble…”

Mr Nasty seemed to be nodding with approval while his colleague seemed to be even more baffled. “Trouble? What kind of trouble?”

You know. Trying to discredit me. Leaking stuff about me to the papers. Fitting me up for a crime I haven’t committed. Just because I might have seen things which might embarrass the police—which I didn’t by the way.”

Mr Nice was disgusted. “Leaking things about you to the press? Fitting you up? I think you’ve been watching too many Hollywood films Mr Crowley. This is England—not a banana republic. It’s our job as investigators to find out what happened when James Davitt was killed. If there are discrepancies in the evidence, they have to be accounted for. If police officers have lied to us or engaged in misconduct, they’ll be subject to disciplinary action. If they’ve committed criminal offences they’ll be subject to prosecution the same as everyone else. No one’s above the law in this country Mr Crowley.” When he’d finished his little speech he paused before repeating proudly, “”This is England…”

Even Mr Nasty looked impressed.

Tom Crowley wavered. “OK. I’ll say what I saw—but I need a categorical assurance, no one’s coming after me for this…”

I’m afraid it’s beneath my dignity to give such a ludicrous ‘assurance’.”

Tom Crowley gave his statement. Haltingly, he remembered how he’d woken up to the sound of muffled explosions, breaking glass and shouting. How he’d looked out of his bedroom window at the lane below. Mr Nice guided him carefully through the events that followed—the man lying on ground with his head raised. Was he alive at that stage?

Tom hesitated. “I think so—I don’t know…”

Mr Nasty intervened to suggest, “But it was dark and raining wasn’t it?”

Tom jumped on the suggestion. “That’s right, it was dark and raining, so maybe he was dead already, I don’t know…”

Mr Nice looked at Mr Nasty with a pained expression and carried on with his probing. Tom admitted that he thought the man on the ground had his wrists bound with what he thought were white straps.

Mr Nice looked pensive but made full notes. “And then there was a gunshot?”

Well, there was a loud bang, kind of a popping really. I assume it was a gunshot. I don’t know, I’ve never heard a gun go off before.” He looked at Mr Nasty for support. Mr Nasty was ready and willing, “Could it have been a stun grenade you heard? The officers used them when they broke into Davitt’s house. Perhaps one went off late?”

Crowley was pathetically grateful. “Yes! Yes! Perhaps it was a stun grenade…” Then he added apologetically.  “Although I’ve never heard one of them either….”

Mr Nice put his pen down and looked at his colleague with a glare that Crowley thought meant he was unhappy with Mr Nasty muddying the waters. Mr Nasty shrugged his shoulders but it didn’t stop him asking at the end of the interview, “Tom, could I ask you roughly how long you were looking out of the window for? A matter of seconds I would imagine?”

That’s right—it was a matter of seconds.”

What we call in the business a ‘fleeting glance’?”

A fleeting glance? Definitely.”

And it was dark and raining?”

Very dark. Very rainy.”

Mr Nice broke the agreement-fest with the words, “Yes, well I think we’ll allow the investigation decide what was and wasn’t a ‘fleeting glance.’ or what Tom could or couldn’t see.”

Mr Nice escorted Tom Crowley out of the building. Thanked him profusely for his help, honesty and paying full attention to his civic duty as a citizen. He gave Tom his card and told him to call anytime, day or night, if he had a problem. Told him to ignore the press who were bunch of lying bastards and would be chasing stories about pop star’s sex lives in a few days anyway. And as for all that nonsense about ‘framing people’ for being ‘unhelpful’—he reminded Tom. “This is England.”

His mightily relieved witness smiled for the first time and repeated. “Yes, this is England.”


When Mr Nice got back to the interview room, his colleague wasn’t happy. “What the fuck was that about?”

What the fuck was what about?”

You and the idiot Crowley—why didn’t you let him say he didn’t see anything? That’s what he wanted to say. Now when the lefties, the police-bashers and the conspiracy nutters get their hands on his statement, they’re going to say we killed Davitt in cold blood. If he sticks to his story, we’re in big trouble.”

Mr Nice took a seat and put his feet up on the desk. “No, we’re not—his statement is fine and you shouldn’t have interfered. It fits what happened almost exactly.”

How do you know what happened? All we’ve got to go on is what the arresting officers say.”

Are you suggesting police officers don’t always tell the exact truth in their statements? Wash your mouth out with soap and water.” They both laughed. “No, the thing is Davitt’s house was under surveillance for months, front and back. The cameras were rolling when our boys went in and we’ve got some great footage of Davitt getting wasted. I had a look at it before the interview. And the thing about it is that it pretty much confirms what our lads say. Davitt was in the lane and raised his arm before the shot that killed him was fired. It’s just possible he might have been surrendering but no one’s going to give a fuck about that. He was still alive on the ground when our guys tied his hands with white straps. That’s OK—standard procedure with terrorist suspects, tie ‘em up, just in case they try and set a bomb off with their spare hand. Even if they’re on the ground and nearly dead. The only slight problem is one of our nervous, butter-fingered officers fired a gun by accident just afterwards. That’ll be the shot Davitt heard. Understandably, our boys forgot to mention that in their statements. But we can work around that little problem. We’ll just use your idea about the stun grenade.”

Mr Nasty was delighted. “So we’re in the clear then?”

Yes we are—which reminds me…” Mr Nice got his phone out and made a call “…is that Roger The Dodger, my favourite Fleet Street muckraker? Dodger—you old bastard! How’s tricks? Listen, I left a message with one of your sidekicks in the office last night asking if you could dig up any dirt on that witness in the Davitt case. Tom Crowley? Yeah? Well, forget it, Crowley’s on our side … did she really?” Mr Nice put his hand over his phone and said to his colleague, “Apparently Crowley’s ex-wife has already been on to their news desk claiming Tom’s a wife beater. What a bitch…” Mr Nice went back to his phone call, “I don’t care if you have got a story about Crowley already lined up—you’d better spike it. You can’t print unsubstantiated rumours like that about a key witness in an important case. This isn’t a banana republic.

This is England.”

About the Author

Tony Mason

Tony Mason is a British writer who lives in London. He studied history at university and did various manual jobs before beginning a career in IT. He writes in collaboration with award-winning novelist Dreda Say Mitchell and their work has included a contribution to the MWA anthology Vengeance, edited by Lee Child. They are currently developing a drama series for British TV.



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