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Authors: Claire McNab

Lessons in Murder

BOOK: Lessons in Murder
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Copyright © 1988 by Claire McNab

Bella Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 10543

Tallahassee, FL 32302


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without permission in writing from the publisher.


Originally published by Naiad Press 1988


First Bella Books printing 2004

Second Bella Books printing 2011


Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

First Edition


Editor: Katherine V. Forrest and Becky Ellis

Cover Designer: Judy Fellows


ISBN:  978-1-931513-65-4

Chapter One


Cassie Turnbull leaned forward, sweaty hands on her grubby knees. She stared at the half-open eye and slack jaw. “He’s dead,” she breathed.

There was a fleeting hush in the crowd of students jostling to get a view from the doorway of the woodwork room. “You sure?” said one. Cassie edged closer and extended an exploratory finger.

She rose, freckles standing out on her white face. “Yeah. We’d better get Farrell.”

The body had ceased to be Mr. Pagett, Industrial Arts teacher: now it was the central piece of a drama. Although momentarily awed by the sight of their teacher’s sprawled form, some students were already visualizing the satisfyingly startled faces of friends and families; others entertained the pleasant thought that normal lessons would probably be suspended for the rest of the day.


Mrs. Farrell watched her teaching staff enter the common room with very little of her usual pleasure. February was a trying month at the best of times, with reluctant students returning after the long break to swelter in classrooms while the Sydney summer delivered perfect day after perfect day of burnished heat. Now, barely two weeks into the first term of the year, this event threatened to not only disrupt the smooth running of her school, but to bring most unwelcome publicity. The identity of the dead teacher had galvanized both the Education Department and the police into impressive action.

She glanced curiously at the woman who sat beside her. Inspector Carol Ashton’s spectacular career had not been hindered by her cool blonde good looks. Mrs. Farrell looked at the tanned skin, sleek hair, firm mouth, and direct green eyes so familiar from television newscasts, and smiled grimly to herself. Carol Ashton would not be put on any ordinary, grubby murder case. Her presence was a testament to the power of political influence. Mrs. Farrell wondered when the dead man’s illustrious father would make his appearance. She had no doubt it would be soon.

As Mrs. Farrell rose, an attentive silence fell upon the common room. “For any person who may not be aware of what has necessitated this sudden meeting, I regret to say that Mr. William Pagett has been found dead in his classroom in unusual circumstances.”

Sybil Quade sat numbly, ignoring the murmur that greeted Mrs. Farrell’s words. She already knew more than most of her colleagues. Sybil had the curious feeling that she had been an invalid for a long time, although only a few hours ago she had been striding confidently to the administration block through the hot February morning. Mrs. Farrell had emerged from Bill’s woodwork room, jaw clamped tight with shock, and had called her over to supervise and isolate the class from the rest of the school while the police were called. Sybil had sat mutely in the principal’s office, letting the excited students sit on the thick green carpet and talk to each other. It would have been impossible to keep them quiet.

Sybil was consumed with a frightening desire to know every detail. The fragments of description, the hushed voices, the muffled exclamations of horrified delight—all these had built up in her imagination a vivid picture. Last night that body had moved with energy and violence. Now it lay, silent and undignified, the blood settling slowly in its limbs and the processes of decay inevitably beginning. Sybil watched without interest as a blonde woman rose to address the meeting. She looked like a successful executive—cool, decisive, disciplined, and in complete control.

Sybil’s thoughts resumed their frantic kaleidoscope. Her fingers traced the welt along her cheekbone. Had it been only last night? She felt an odd detachment, as though watching a replay on a screen: she heard the vicious words, the splintering glass, the squeal of tires as she roared down Bill’s precipitous driveway and skidded onto the road.

The picture was broken by the sound of the blonde woman speaking. She had an arresting voice—clear, silvery, and effortlessly pitched to reach every person in the crowded room.

Sybil felt the steady pressure of Terry’s arm against her body. She moved slightly, but he shifted to maintain contact with her bare arm. “Watch this one,” he said quietly. “Very high-powered, very successful, very confident. A mean bitch.” Alarm began to ring in Sybil’s mind. She forced herself to listen closely as the woman continued.

“I’m sure you’ll understand there are certain procedures to be followed in these circumstances that may cause some inconvenience. As a matter of routine we will be taking fingerprints, for example, and also asking you to accept a temporary restriction of your movements. In particular, if you wish to leave the school premises will you please advise the police officer in the main office of this administration block. We hope to complete most of the preliminary interviews today. In addition we will be requiring access to certain areas, and will be approaching you individually on this.”

“You know what that means?” said Terry loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Search warrants. Cops pawing through personal belongings.”

The Inspector gave him a level glance, then turned away to speak to Mrs. Farrell. The meeting broke up in a hubbub of exclamations, teachers spilling out into the brassy midday sun in twos or threes. Sybil drifted outside without conscious volition. She felt like a jellyfish floating slackly in a warm sea.

“Walk!” A hand under her elbow and steady pressure to move forward. Sybil turned her head and her eyes met Terry’s. His black glance was, as always, opaque. “You’ll get sunstroke if you stand out here much longer. Come on.”

As they drew near the English staff room he slowed, tightening his fingers on her arm. “About last night, Syb,” he said urgently, “don’t say anything about seeing Bill. No one knows about it. You’d only cause yourself trouble if you mention it. The police won’t understand.” His eyes shifted to her cheek. “He hit you, did he?”

Sybil stared at him, but before she could answer a young and self-important voice broke in, a junior student bursting with the importance of his task, so far removed from the usual boring school messages. “Mrs. Quade? It’s urgent.”

Sybil looked at the note on the clipboard. She was summoned to the principal’s office for an interview.

Chapter Two


“Mrs. Quade?” said Carol Ashton, rising from the principal’s chair. “Please sit down.” She was struck by Sybil Quade’s attractiveness.

Sybil waited, acutely aware of everything in the room. A trapped blowfly buzzed against the window, the curtains moved lazily in the breeze, the Inspector’s calm green eyes regarded her objectively.

“Detective Bourke will be making notes of our conversation.”

The man sitting attentively to one side of the desk had an unremarkably pleasant face. He gave Sybil a faint smile. She did not return it.

Carol Ashton’s clear voice caught her attention. “This is your current staff information sheet. Are the details still correct?”


“You’re separated from your husband, Mrs. Quade?” She watched Sybil Quade with heightening interest.

“I don’t see . . .” Sybil paused, then continued, “yes. Tony went back to England at the end of last year.”

“Your husband is British?”

“Yes.” Silence stretched, to be filled. Sybil cleared her throat. “I haven’t spoken to Tony for . . .” She trailed off, remembering their last heated argument.

Carol Ashton consulted papers. Bourke wrote in his notebook. Sybil felt the heavy beat of her heart. The cool green eyes met hers.

“How well did you know Bill Pagett?”

“Quite well. He was my husband’s friend in the first place. I met him for the first time at Bill’s house. Look, I really don’t know what this has to do with everything.”

Carol said deliberately, “When did you last see Mr. Pagett—alive?”

That was meant to shock, and it did. “I’m not sure. This morning, I think, but I don’t remember speaking to him.”

“Would you regard Mr. Pagett as a close, personal friend?”

“Bill? Not a close friend, no.”

“So he was your husband’s friend, not yours?”

“I suppose so.” Sybil looked up to Carol Ashton’s raised eyebrows. “Yes,” she added flatly, “Bill was Tony’s friend. Bill and I teach at the same school, but we don’t . . . we didn’t . . . have much in common.”

“Except your husband.”

“Except Tony.”

Another long pause. Sybil looked at the sleek blonde hair and clean planes of Carol Ashton’s face. She heard Terry’s words: a mean bitch. She waited, suspended, for the next question.

Carol watched her. “Did Mr. Pagett appear quite normal when you last saw him? Was he agitated or angry, perhaps?”

Sybil thought of his contorted face as he had shouted at her last night. “No, I didn’t notice anything.” Was the Inspector satisfied, convinced? Sybil couldn’t tell from her expression.

“We have been informed that Mr. Pagett was responsible for your separation from your husband,” she said.

The blowfly still buzzed maddeningly at the window. “Who told you that?”

Another interminable pause. Sybil knew that the silence was designed to make her talk. Even so, she couldn’t bear to let it stretch any longer. “Tony and I agreed to separate because we found we were no longer happy together. Bill had nothing to do with it—he was just Tony’s friend. Tony went to stay with him after we parted. That’s all. Bill . . . Bill was Tony’s closest friend.”

Who would leave you? thought Carol, looking at the curve of Sybil’s mouth and the line of her cheekbones. Aloud, she said, “Did you speak to Bill Pagett last night?”

“No, I didn’t see him.”

“Did you telephone Bill Pagett?”

“No.” Sybil licked dry lips. “Look, can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“It is murder, isn’t it? Not just some dreadful accident?”

“Not an accident. No.” Carol Ashton watched her steadily across the desk, waiting. Detective Bourke looked up from his notebook. Neither showed any surprise at her next question.

“What happened?” Sybil searched for words. “It’s not just curiosity. I sat in his office for more than an hour this morning, looking after the kids who found him. I didn’t even try to stop them whispering to each other. What I mean is, whatever I can imagine must be worse than what actually happened. I’m sure of that.”

Afterwards Sybil wondered why the information was given to her so freely, but now she listened tensely as the silvery voice said, “It’s only a preliminary report, but it appears likely that Mr. Pagett was first knocked unconscious by a blow to his head . . .” She paused. “Sure you want to hear this? It’s not very pleasant.”

Sybil felt an insane desire to laugh. “Is it ever pleasant?” she said. “I’m sorry. I just . . . please go on.”

The calm voice continued inexorably. “It looks very much as if someone took a power drill and used it to go up through the base of his skull and into his brain.”

“They drilled a hole in his head?” Sybil stood up. “I’m sorry—I can’t stay. Excuse me.”

The blowfly buzzed against the window in the silence Sybil left behind her. Carol stood up and scooped it to freedom through the bottom of the window. “What do you think?” she asked Bourke.

“I think we should ask her how she got that rather spectacular bruise,” said Bourke with a grin. “Redheads like her have fiery tempers—who knows what she might do if pushed too far?”

“Who knows, indeed,” said Carol Ashton, sardonically amused that both she and Bourke felt the same pull of physical attraction towards Sybil Quade. No. Forget it, she told herself.

BOOK: Lessons in Murder
6.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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