Extract: Conviction by Denise Mina
It’s just a normal morning for Anna McDonald. Gym kits, packed lunches, getting everyone up and ready. Until she opens the front door to her best friend, Estelle. Anna turns to see her own husband at the top of the stairs, suitcase in hand. They’re leaving together and they’re taking Anna’s two daughters with them.
Left alone in the big, dark house, Anna can’t think. With her world shattered, she distracts herself with a story: a true-crime podcast. There’s a sunken yacht in the Mediterranean, multiple murders and a hint of power and corruption. Then Anna realises she knew one of the victims in another life. Convinced she knows what really happened, she can no longer stay silent…
Read on for an extract from Conviction by Denise Mina!
The day my life exploded started well.
It was early morning in November and I woke up without the use of an alarm clock. I was pleased about that. It was a concession to our couples counselling: I wouldn’t wake Hamish at six with my alarm clock and he wouldn’t play Candy Crush on his phone all evening while ignoring the children.
I was looking forward to my day. I had a new true-crime podcast series waiting on my phone and I’d heard good things about it. I planned to listen to the first episode, get a taste for the story before I got everyone up for school, and then binge on it while I trawled through a load of menial tasks. A good podcast can add a glorious multi-world texture to anything. I’ve resisted an Assyrian invasion while picking up dry-cleaning. I’ve seen justice served on a vicious murderer while buying underpants.
I lay in bed savouring the anticipation, watching the light from the street ripple across the ceiling, listening as the heating kicked on and the grand old dame of a house groaned and cracked her bones. I got up, pulled on a jumper and slippers, and crept out of the bedroom.
I loved getting up before everyone else, when the house was still and I could read or listen to a podcast alone in a frozen world. I knew where everyone was. I knew they were safe. I could relax.
Hamish resented it. He said it was creepy. Why did I need this time alone, sneaking around the house? Why did I need to be alone so much?
Trust issues, the couples counsellor called it.
I tried to reassure Hamish, I’m not planning to kill you or anything. But that was not reassuring, apparently. In fact, Anna, it might sound rather hostile to Hamish, if you think about it from his point of view. Really? (I said it in a hostile way.) Does that sound hostile? Then we talked about that for a while. It was a stupid process. We were both hostile and sad. Our relationship was in its death throes.
I tiptoed across the landing, skirting the squeakiest floorboards and looked in on both of the girls. They were fast asleep in their wee beds, school uniforms laid out on chairs, socks in shoes, ties under collars. I wish I had lingered longer. I would never see them so innocent again.
I went back out to the landing. An oak banister curled softly from the top of the house to bottom, carved to fit the cup of a hand, grainy to the touch, following the wind of the stairs like a great long snake of yellow marzipan. It led down to a grand hallway with marble pillars flanking the front door and a floor mosaic of Hamish’s ancestral coat of arms. The house was bought by Hamish’s great-grandfather in 1869. He bought it new from Greek Thompson.
Hamish was very proud of his background. He knew nothing at all about mine. I must emphasise that. I’m not just saying that to protect him, now that everything has come out. He was a senior member of the Bar, he was hoping to be appointed to the bench like his forebears. He wouldn’t have risked that just to be with me.
When we met I was Anna, the new office temp from Somewhere-Outside-of-Aberdeen. I chose Hamish quite carefully. I did love him, I must say that, and I still do, sometimes. But I deliberately picked an older man with money and status. A declamatory man, full of facts and opinions. He was the perfect hide.
Hamish was born in that house and had never lived anywhere else. His family had been on or near the Scottish judiciary for two hundred years. He didn’t much like foreign travel. He read only Scottish writers. It seemed so weird to me. I think I found it a little exotic.
It was cold in the hall that morning. I walked through into the white-gleaming, German-designed kitchen and made a pot of strong coffee. I picked up my phone. The true-crime podcast series was called Death and the Dana. The description read ‘A sunken yacht, a murdered family on board, a secret still unsolved…’
Oh yes: ponderous tone, secrets, murders, it had everything. And the case had happened while my girls were small, a time of little jumpers and waiting outside school, standing silently with the timeless phalanx of mothers, absent from the wider world. I didn’t know anything about this murder case.
I poured a big mug of coffee, sat down, put my phone on the kitchen table in front of me and pressed play. I expected an absorbing, high-stakes story.
I had no idea I was about to meet Leon Parker again.
Episode 1: Death and the Dana
I’m Trina Keany, a producer here on the MisoNetwork. Welcome to this podcast series: Death and the Dana.
According to French police this strange and troubling case is closed. They solved it. Amila Fabricase was convicted of the murder of three members of the same family. But Amila Fabricase could not have done it: multiple witnesses, CCTV and passport checks that include her fingerprints place her on an airplane, flying to Lyon, at the time of the murders. The murders could only have been committed by someone on board.
On the night in question a wealthy family – a father and his two children – were having a dinner on board their docked private yacht, the Dana. The crew had been sent ashore at the father’s insistence and the family were alone.
The boat motored out of port in the dark. No sails were set. Radio and navigation lights were left off. Still, the Dana navigated the tricky sandbanks of the Perthuis Breton strait, changed course by thirty-two degrees and headed out into the Atlantic. Several miles out to sea an explosion in the hull sank the ship. All three people on board died.
So what could have happened? Why were the authorities so determined to believe something that was probably not true? And why has there never been an appeal against the conviction?
Trina Keany’s south London accent was soft, her timbre low, intonation melodic. I put my feet up on the chair next to me and sipped delicious coffee.
Even before it sank, the Dana had a reputation for being haunted. Superstitious commentators immediately seized upon the sinking as confirmation that the boat was cursed. A month later, a bizarre underwater film of the wreck seemed to confirm just that.
But let’s go back to the beginning and set the scene.
The Île de Ré is a chichi holiday resort off the west coast of France. It has a quirky history. It’s a long, flat island, basically a sandbank between La Rochelle and the Bay of Biscay. For most of its history the island was cut off from the mainland and very poor. The economy depended on salt harvesting and criminal transportations. It was from the island’s capital, Saint-Martin, that French prisoners left for the penal colonies of New Caledonia and Guiana. Dreyfus left for Devil’s Island from Saint-Martin. The author of Papillon, Henri Charrière, left on a prison ship in 1931.
Because it was poor and isolated the island remained undeveloped. It kept its ancient cobbled streets, pretty sun-bleached cottages with terracotta roofs, doors and shutters painted pastel green or blue. Tall pink hollyhocks burst from pavements in summer and it has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. But the population is very wealthy now and that’s because of the bridge.
In the late 1980s, at great expense, a long road bridge was built linking it with La Rochelle. French holidaymakers slowly began to discover the unspoiled island. It became a low-key holiday resort, understated, modest in scale. The climate is pleasant, as sunny as the south of France but cooler because of a breeze coming off the Atlantic which tempers the heat. The island is flat. There are cycle lanes everywhere.
Over the next couple of decades more and more people wanted the simple life in a bucolic setting. Movie stars, musicians, ex-presidents and captains of industry moved there. Competition for houses became intense. Even modest houses became expensive, then unaffordable. Poor fishermen’s cottages stand empty, used occasionally by high-end holidaymakers who sail into the marina in the centre of town. Shops no longer sell horsemeat or hardware, they sell Gucci and Chanel. It has an air of wealth.
Locals have resisted. Holiday homes have been burned to the ground. Incomers have reported harassment and prejudicial treatment. One family claimed they were chased off the island. But mostly it is peaceful.
As the Dana docked in Saint-Martin that day there were a lot of hobby sailors who recognised and admired her. She was a beautiful ship.
The Dana was not the kind of private yacht we tend to think of now: there were no plasma screens or helipads, no four storeys of white couches and minibars. She was a sailing ship, a schooner. Schooners are louche. In times gone by, pirates and privateers loved schooners for their speed. They have high sails and a curved bow that sits low in the water like a slick-hipped cowboy’s gun belt.
So the Dana was beautiful and she was famous. Once dubbed ‘the most haunted yacht afloat’, a movie had been made about her in the 1970s in the tradition of The Amityville Horror. Like that film and other horror movies of that period, The Haunting of the Dana looks creaky to us now, but it was very successful at the time, as was the book that inspired it. The ship’s notoriety followed it, creating a flurry of interest wherever she docked.
That afternoon, she docked in Saint-Martin, was tied up, bow and stern, and a gangplank was lowered.
A mismatched young couple approached the ship. The girl was slim, tanned, blonde and looked very Italian. She wore a sleeveless, ankle-length Missoni dress and sandals. Her companion was a gangly teen boy dressed in baggy shorts, skater shoes and an oversized T-shirt. One eyewitness actually thought the boy was a lucky horror fan who had stumbled unexpectedly on the Dana, because his T-shirt had an image from the cult horror movie Drag Me to Hell. The witness remembered thinking that the boy must be very pleased to see the famous ship. He was surprised when a man with the same hair and face, obviously the boy’s father, waved to the boy from the yacht. He wondered if the father had bought the yacht for the boy’s entertainment or if the boy wore the T-shirt for his father’s. It stuck in his mind.
I was relaxed, had my feet up on the table and I was drinking coffee so strong that it was making me break into a gentle sweat. My mind began to stray to the day ahead but then Keany said:
In fact, the mismatched boy and girl were siblings and had come to meet their father, Leon Parker, the yacht’s new owner.
Startled, I sat up, thinking I must have misheard. I was groggy, it was early. I thought it was sleepy mind tricks, that I had misheard something as Leon’s name. I hadn’t thought about him for years and it shocked me that his name should come to me now.
He’d invited his two children to come to Saint-Martin to join him on board the Dana. They were going to celebrate the elder, Violetta, turning twenty-one. The kids hardly knew each other. They came from homes in different countries and from very different mothers. Leon had recently remarried and was making an effort to forge a family unit out of the mess of his past, an effort that may have been at the behest of his new wife. It was a marked change from his previous behaviour.
He meant to serve them a meal on board his yacht and present his daughter with a fabulous antique diamond necklace to mark her coming of age.
In the chill of the morning kitchen I was still in denial, trying to convince myself that I had heard the name wrong, but my heart rate rose steadily. It was as if my blood admitted it really was him before my mind could.
The gangplank was lowered and a young woman rushed off the ship. She had a bag of clothes with her; she held one hand over her right eye and was being shouted after by the captain.
This was Amila Fabricase, the ship’s chef.
Amila left fast enough to make a loud clang clang clang on the metal gangplank. The noise drew the eyes of multiple witnesses. She pushed through the crowds, ran across town and stopped to ask a waiter in a cafe where she could get a taxi to the airport. He later described her as holding a hand over her eye, face ashen, body trembling, tears rolling down the covered side of her face and dripping from her chin. The waiter made her sit down and called a cab. She seemed to be in a lot of pain, he thought she had hurt her eye and asked if she wanted him to take a look. She didn’t. He helped her into the cab for the airport and she thanked him.
Back on the Dana the captain was furious. The family had gathered for a celebration meal but the chef was gone. He called Amila’s employment agency demanding a replacement but it was the height of the season and no one was available. He left angry messages on Amila’s phone, insisting that she give back her wages: they had all been paid in cash at the start of the voyage. This is very unusual practice and made the captain look bad. Amila had taken all of her money with her. She never called back.
The kids saw Amila leave, saw the captain shouting, but then their father came down the gangplank and they all hugged and set off for a walk around town while the captain fumed and made arrangements for dinner.
Les Copains, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the town, agreed to provide bouillabaisse soup, bread, charcuterie, cheeses and salad. Bouillabaisse is a fish stew. Like a lot of peasant foods, it began as a simple dish but now the recipe is rigidly adhered to. The basic fish stew should be garnished with freshly cooked mussels, crab and garlic-rubbed bread, all added just before serving. This became important later to establish the sequence of the events. The restaurant wanted to leave a sous chef on board to serve the bouillabaisse properly but the captain said no. Leon Parker wanted the yacht to himself tonight. No sous chef would be permitted to stay. Leon wanted them to be alone.
Les Copains was so ashamed about their mis-service of the bouillabaisse that it took a week before they admitted that they left before the soup was served.
On land, Leon and the kids walked up through the town and stopped at a cafe-bar for beer and Fantas. The cafe owner remembered that Leon smoked and talked a lot, that they all laughed together but seemed tense.
Back at the Dana, dinner was delivered from Les Copains and set up in the galley, the bouillabaisse in a thermal pot, ready to be served. The garnish was left on a separate plate. The cheese had been plated up, as had the charcuterie. The table was set in the gorgeous formal dining room downstairs. Leon hadn’t had a chance to use it yet and was keen to show it off. A magnum of champagne had been put on ice, on deck, as per Leon’s instructions. The crew awaited the family’s return.
When they saw the Parkers walking down the dock towards the ship, the captain got the crew to line up and welcome them. Leon was last on board. He gave the captain a few hundred euros and ordered him to take the crew to a bar for a big football match, France vs Germany in a European Cup semi-final match. He told them not to come back before eleven.
The captain did what he was told. He led his men to a bar nearby and they watched the whole match. France won, knocking Germany out and gaining a place in the final. The French crew had a very good night. They went for pizza before getting to the dock at ten past eleven.
But the Dana was gone. None of the Parker family members were ever seen alive again.
There were no communications from on board but this is what was seen by diners at a nearby rooftop restaurant: sunset was around nine thirty. They saw one person casting off but it was dark. The Dana’s engine started and the ship motored out into open waters.
As the top mast passed by the rooftop restaurant, just eighty yards away, onlookers gave her a round of applause. But the diners with sailing experience saw that something was wrong.
The navigation lights were off on the boat.
These lights should be on at all times when a ship is in motion: a light on the main mast, one at the front and back, and coloured lights on the side – red on port, green on starboard, so that other boats know which direction the ship is going in.
Two diners were so troubled that they called the coastguard to warn them something was awry with the Dana. Someone had cast off without the lights on. It suggested an incompetent sailor with no training or awareness of the regulations. The coastguard tried to contact the yacht but the maritime radio had been switched off.
The Dana motored straight out into the Atlantic, cutting across a major shipping lane. That’s a dangerous thing to do without a radio because modern containerships are huge and sail blind. They rely on radio contact to warn smaller vessels to get out of the way.
Miraculously, the Dana crossed the shipping lane without incident but the coastguard was now tracking it as a safety hazard.
This drew the attention of other ships.
A nearby container ship stationed a crewman to watch the Dana until the coastguard got there. Much later, after Amila was sentenced for the murders, the crewman was interviewed for a documentary. He described what he saw.
There was a change of sound texture, better quality with the flat ambience of a studio. The man spoke perfect English with a thick Dutch accent.
‘Yes, we radioed many times but no reply came back. I was asked to stand on the bridge and watch until the coastguard got there. It was a clear night, I had binoculars. I could see the outline, we were approaching, but no one on board. So, OK. That was a strange… um… situation. The lights were off, even the masthead, but the engine was still running. I could see fumes coming out and it was moving in a straight line. Maybe a power failure? I don’t know. But as I watched, that yacht just dropped straight down into the sea.
‘I watched it go straight down. It didn’t list. It happened very quickly, sea folds over the deck, little puff of smoke as the
engine went under, sea covered the top mast and then the water was calm again. It just went down and it was gone.
‘It was weird. We all laughed. We didn’t know there was a family on there. We thought someone had scuttled it for insurance, done it badly, that they would get found out. You have no idea how expensive these ships are, even when they are just sitting in dock. We thought that was what happened. Because, well, what else could have happened?’
What else indeed?
Amila Fabricase was charged and convicted of sinking the ship. The police found evidence that she had handled explosives and claimed that she set them in the engine room of the Dana before she got off. What the investigation never seemed to ask was this: who sailed the ship out to sea? It had to be someone on board.
Suppose Leon Parker had a bit to drink and decided to go sailing after dinner. Suppose he forgot to turn on the lights and the radio – even then, the rooftop diners would have seen him casting off. But they didn’t see anyone. One witness on the dock did see a lone figure but said they were staying low, being furtive, as if they were hiding. It was done surreptitiously.
Amila was traced, searched, interrogated and investigated.
The wealthy family were hardly looked at.
The police paid scant attention to Leon, who had invited the kids there and dismissed the crew after paying them in cash. Leon, who could both cast off and sail the ship. Leon, who ordered the captain to set out the dinner in the dining room, below deck, on a warm July night, when the most obvious place to eat would be on deck. No one asked if Leon Parker killed his family. The police focused exclusively on Amila.
Leon had recently married into a very powerful family. They are famously media-shy and connected. Is it possible that they asked the police not to look at Leon? Is it possible that it was simply implied that the police’s focus should be elsewhere?
I paused it. I knew it was my Leon. My friend Leon.
My heart was thumping in my throat. I picked up my phone and opened the podcast home page.
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