Authors: Peter Robinson
Quilley stood on the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road among the camera-clicking tourists and watched Peplow walk off towards the St George subway station. Now that their meeting was over and the
spell was broken, he wondered again what the hell he was doing helping this pathetic little man. It certainly wasn’t altruism. Perhaps the challenge appealed to him; after all, people climb
mountains just because they’re there.
And then there was Peplow’s mystery collection. There was just a chance that it might contain an item of great interest to Quilley and that Peplow might be grateful enough to part with
Wondering how to approach the subject at their next meeting, Quilley wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and walked towards the bookshop.
Atropine, hyoscyamine, belladonna
. . . Quilley flipped through Dreisbach’s
Handbook of Poisoning
one evening at the cottage. Poison seemed to have gone out
of fashion these days, and he had only used it in one of his novels, about six years ago. That had been the old standby, cyanide, with its familiar smell of bitter almonds, which he had so often
read about but never experienced. The small black handbook had sat on his shelf gathering dust ever since.
Writing a book, of course, one could generally skip over the problems of acquiring the stuff – give the killer a job as a pharmacist or in a hospital dispensary, for example. In real life,
getting one’s hands on poison might prove more difficult.
So far, he had read through the sections on agricultural poisons, household hazards and medicinal poisons. The problem was that whatever Peplow used had to be easily available. Prescription
drugs were out. Even if Peplow could persuade a doctor to give him barbiturates, for example, the prescription would be on record and any death in the household would be regarded as suspicious.
Barbiturates wouldn’t do, anyway, and nor would such common products as paint thinner, insecticides and weed killers – they didn’t reproduce the symptoms of a heart attack.
Near the back of the book was a list of poisonous plants that shocked Quilley by its sheer length. He hadn’t known just how much deadliness there was lurking in fields, gardens and woods.
Rhubarb leaves contained oxalic acid, for example, and caused nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The bark, wood, leaves or seeds of the yew had a similar effect. Boxwood leaves and twigs caused
convulsions; celandine could bring about a coma; hydrangeas contained cyanide; and laburnums brought on irregular pulse, delirium, twitching and unconsciousness. And so the list went on –
lupins, mistletoe, sweet peas, rhododendron – a poisoner’s delight. Even the beautiful poinsettia, which brightened up so many Toronto homes each Christmas, could cause gastroenteritis.
Most of these plants were easy to get hold of, and in many cases the active ingredients could be extracted simply by soaking or boiling in water.
It wasn’t long before Quilley found what he was looking for. Beside ‘Oleander’ the note read, ‘See
, 374.’ And there it was, set out in detail.
Digitalis occurred in all parts of the common foxglove, which grew on waste ground and woodland slopes, and flowered from June to September. Acute poisoning would bring about death from ventricular
fibrillation. No doctor would consider an autopsy if Peplow’s wife appeared to die of a heart attack, given her habits, especially if Peplow fed her a few smaller doses first to establish the
Quilley set aside the book. It was already dark outside, and the downpour that the humid, cloudy day had been promising had just begun. Rain slapped against the asphalt roof tiles, gurgled down
the drainpipe and pattered on the leaves of the overhanging trees. In the background, it hissed as it fell on the lake. Distant flashes of lightning and deep rumblings of thunder warned of the
Happy with his solitude and his cleverness, Quilley linked his hands behind his head and leaned back in the chair. Out back, he heard the rustling of a small animal making its way through the
undergrowth – a raccoon, perhaps, or even a skunk. When he closed his eyes, he pictured all the trees, shrubs and wild flowers around the cottage and marvelled at the deadly potential so many
of them contained.
The sun blazed down on the back patio of the Madison, a small garden protected from the wind by high fences. Quilley wore his sunglasses and nursed a pint of Conner’s Ale.
The place was packed. Skilled and pretty waitresses came and went, trays laden with baskets of chicken wings and golden pints of lager.
The two of them sat out of the way at a white table in a corner by the metal fire escape. A striped parasol offered some protection, but the sun was still too hot and too bright. Peplow’s
wife must have given him hell about drinking the last time because today he had ordered only a Coke.
‘It was easy,’ Quilley said. ‘You could have done it yourself. The only setback was that foxgloves don’t grow wild here like they do in England. But you’re a
gardener; you grow them.’
Peplow shook his head and smiled. ‘It’s the gift of clever people like yourself to make difficult things seem easy. I’m not particularly resourceful, Mr Quilley. Believe me, I
wouldn’t have known where to start. I had no idea that such a book existed, but you did because of your art. Even if I had known, I’d hardly have dared buy it or take it out of the
library for fear that someone would remember. But you’ve had your copy for years. A simple tool of the trade. No, Mr Quilley, please don’t underestimate your contribution. I was a
desperate man. Now you’ve given me a chance at freedom. If there’s anything at all I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to say. I’d consider it an honour.’
‘This collection of yours,’ Quilley said. ‘What does it consist of?’
‘British and Canadian crime fiction, mostly. I don’t like to boast, but it’s a very good collection. Try me. Go on, just mention a name.’
‘E. C. R. Lorac.’
‘About twenty of the Inspector MacDonalds. First editions, mint condition.’
Peplow raised his eyebrows. ‘Good Lord, that’s an obscure one. Do you know, you’re the first person I’ve come across who’s ever mentioned that.’
‘Do you have it?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Peplow smiled smugly. ‘X. J. Trotton,
Signed in Blood
, published 1942. It turned up in a pile of junk I bought at an auction some years ago. It’s rare,
but not very valuable. Came out in Britain during the war and probably died an immediate death. It was his only book, as far as I can make out, and there is no biographical information. Perhaps it
was a pseudonym for someone famous?’
Quilley shook his head. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know. Have you read it?’
‘Good Lord, no! I don’t read them. It could damage the spines. Many of them are fragile. Anything I want to read – like your books – I also buy in paperback.’
‘Mr Peplow,’ Quilley said slowly, ‘you asked if there was anything you could do for me. As a matter of fact, there
something you can give me for my
Peplow frowned and pursed his thin lips. ‘Why on earth . . . ?’
‘For my own collection, of course. I’m especially interested in the war period.’
Peplow smiled. ‘Ah! So that’s how you knew so much about them? I’d no idea you were a collector too.’
Quilley shrugged modestly. He could see Peplow struggling, visualizing the gap in his collection. But finally the poor man decided that the murder of his wife was more important to him than an
obscure mystery novel. ‘Very well,’ he said gravely. ‘I’ll mail it to you.’
‘How can I be sure . . . ?’
Peplow looked offended. ‘I’m a man of my word, Mr Quilley. A bargain is a bargain.’ He held out his hand. ‘Gentleman’s agreement.’
‘All right.’ Quilley believed him. ‘You’ll be in touch when it’s done?’
‘Yes. Perhaps a brief note in with the Trotton, if you can wait that long. Say two or three weeks?’
‘Fine. I’m in no hurry.’
Quilley hadn’t examined his motives since the first meeting, but he had realized, as he passed on the information and instructions, that it was the challenge he responded to more than
anything else. For years he had been writing crime novels, and in providing Peplow with the means to kill his slatternly, overbearing wife, Quilley had derived some vicarious pleasure from the
knowledge that he – Inspector Baldry’s creator – could bring off in real life what he had always been praised for doing in fiction.
Quilley also knew that there were no real detectives who possessed Baldry’s curious mixture of intellect and instinct. Most of them were thick plodders, and they would never realize that
dull Mr Peplow had murdered his wife with a bunch of foxgloves, of all things. Nor would they ever know that the brains behind the whole affair had been none other than his, Dennis
The two men drained their glasses and left together. The corner of Bloor and Spadina was busy with tourists and students lining up for charcoal-grilled hot dogs from the street vendor. Peplow
turned towards the subway and Quilley wandered among the artsy crowd and the rollerbladers on Bloor Street West for a while, then he settled at an open-air cafe over a daiquiri and a slice of
kiwi-fruit cheesecake to read the
Globe and Mail
Now, he thought as he sipped his drink and turned to the arts section, all he had to do was wait. One day soon a small package would arrive for him. Peplow would be free of his wife, and Quilley
would be the proud owner of one of the few remaining copies of X. J. Trotton’s one and only mystery novel,
Signed in Blood
Three weeks passed and no package arrived. Occasionally, Quilley thought of Mr Peplow and wondered what had become of him. Perhaps he had lost his nerve after all. That
wouldn’t be surprising. Quilley knew that he would have no way of finding out what had happened if Peplow chose not to contact him again. He didn’t know where the man lived or where he
worked. He didn’t even know if Peplow was his real name. Still, he thought, it was best that way. No contact. Even the Trotton wasn’t worth being involved in a botched murder for.
Then, at ten o’clock one warm Tuesday morning in September, the doorbell chimed. Quilley looked at his watch and frowned. Too early for the postman. Sighing, he pressed the SAVE command on
his PC and walked down to answer the door. A stranger stood there, an overweight woman in a yellow polka-dot dress with short sleeves and a low neck. She had piggy eyes set in a round face and dyed
red hair that looked limp and lifeless after a cheap perm. She carried an imitation crocodile-skin handbag.
Quilley must have stood there looking puzzled for too long. The woman’s eyes narrowed and her rosebud mouth tightened so much that white furrows radiated from the red circle of her
‘May I come in?’ she asked.
Stunned, Quilley stood back and let her enter. She walked straight over to a wicker armchair and sat down. The basketwork creaked under her. From there, she surveyed the room, with its waxed
parquet floor, stone fireplace and antique Ontario furniture.
‘Nice,’ she said, clutching her handbag on her lap. Quilley sat down opposite her. Her dress was a size too small and the material strained over her red, fleshy upper arms and
pinkish bosom. The hem rode up as she crossed her legs, exposing a wedge of fat, mottled thigh. Primly, she pulled it down again over her dimpled knees.
‘I’m sorry to appear rude,’ said Quilley, regaining his composure, ‘but who the hell are you?’
‘My name is Peplow,’ the woman said. ‘Gloria Peplow. I’m a widow.’
Quilley felt a tingling sensation along his spine, the way he always did when fear began to take hold of him.
He frowned and said, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know you, do I?’
‘We’ve never met,’ the woman replied, ‘but I think you knew my husband.’
‘I don’t recall any Peplow. Perhaps you’re mistaken?’
Gloria Peplow shook her head and fixed him with her piggy eyes. He noticed they were black, or as near as. ‘I’m not mistaken, Mr Quilley. You didn’t only know my husband, you
also plotted with him to murder me.’
Quilley flushed and jumped to his feet. ‘That’s absurd! Look, if you’ve come here to make insane accusations like that, you’d better go.’ He stood like an ancient
statue, one hand pointing dramatically towards the door.
Mrs Peplow smirked. ‘Oh, sit down. You look very foolish standing there like that.’
Quilley continued to stand. ‘This is
home, Mrs Peplow, and I insist that you leave. Now!’
Mrs Peplow sighed and opened the gilded plastic clasp on her purse. She took out a Shoppers Drug Mart envelope, picked out two colour photographs and dropped them next to the Wedgwood dish on
the antique wine table by her chair. Leaning forward, Quilley could see clearly what they were: one showed him standing with Peplow outside the Park Plaza, and the other caught the two of them
talking outside the Scotiabank at Bloor and Spadina. Mrs Peplow flipped the photos over, and Quilley saw that they had been date-stamped by the processors.
‘You met with my husband at least twice to help him plan my death.’
‘That’s ridiculous. I do remember him now I’ve seen the picture. I just couldn’t recollect his name. He was a fan. We talked about mystery novels. I’m very sorry to
hear that he’s passed away.’
‘He had a heart attack, Mr Quilley, and now I’m all alone in the world.’
‘I’m very sorry, but I don’t see . . .’
Mrs Peplow waved his protests aside. Quilley noticed the dark sweat stain on the tight material around her armpit. She fumbled with the catch on her purse again and brought out a pack of Export
Lights and a book of matches.
‘I don’t allow smoking in my house,’ Quilley said. ‘It doesn’t agree with me.’
‘Pity,’ she said, lighting the cigarette and dropping the spent match in the Wedgwood bowl. She blew a stream of smoke directly at Quilley, who coughed and fanned it away.
‘Listen to me, Mr Quilley,’ she said, ‘and listen good. My husband might have been stupid, but I’m not. He was not only a pathetic and boring little man, he was also an
open book. Don’t ask me why I married him. He wasn’t even much of a man, if you know what I mean. Do you think I haven’t known for some time that he was thinking of ways to get
rid of me? I wouldn’t give him a divorce because the one thing he did – the
thing he did – was provide for me and he didn’t even do that very well. I’d
have got half if we divorced, but half of what he earned isn’t enough to keep a bag lady. I’d have had to go to work and I don’t like that idea. So I watched him. He got more and
more desperate, more and more secretive. When he started looking smug, I knew he was up to something.’