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Authors: Judith Cutler

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BOOK: Staying Power
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‘How can I hear what you say if you've got your mouth covered up?' Aunt Cassie demanded.

Kate had long suspected that the old lady actually lip-read most of what was said. Persuading her to try a hearing-aid would be interesting, to say the least.

Kate touched the mask she'd persuaded a nurse to find for her. ‘I said, I've got a cold: I wanted to see you but I didn't want to give you any germs.'

Aunt Cassie turned aside petulantly. ‘Are you deaf? I said take the damn thing off. That's better. When did the cold break?'

‘Last week. Thursday night.'

‘And today's – Tuesday? Monday? Monday. You lose all sense of time in this place. In that case, I shouldn't think you're very infectious. Well, then. Sit down where I can see you. Goodness, look at your nose. And your mouth. No cold sores?'

Kate looked around, found the arm of her chair. ‘Touch wood, it's something I've avoided so far.'

‘Mind you, no one would have wanted to kiss you with your lips all cracked and skinning like that. Did you meet any gorgeous young men? I remember back in the fifties I came back from Rome with my bum all black and blue.'

‘I've failed, then. Or perhaps it was because I was with Pippa – you remember, Donald and Eva's daughter.'

‘My God, no one'd risk pinching
her
bottom. Does she still walk as if she's carrying a gun and wouldn't think twice about using it? Never get a man that way. They like a bit of femininity, these men.'

‘Not Pippa's man, Aunt Cassie! She's sleeping with a US general – a five-star general, which means—'

‘Oh, don't bother me with that. She can look after herself. Always could. Never came to see me. Not like you. Coming to see me on the train all by yourself, even when you were a child. I appreciated that. I still do,' she added, gruffly, as if embarrassed by such an admission.

Kate smiled. She had Cassie's house as evidence, curse it as she might have done when it was at its appalling worst. What she'd have liked to say was that she'd always loved Cassie, and coming to see her was an unbelievable adventure. All she dared risk was, ‘I know. Tell you what, it was nice to come home, now your house – my house – is no longer a building site. Zenia from next-door – you remember? She's laid low with flu at the moment – she brought in a team of cleaners she rounded up from the hospital where she works while I was away so it's beginning to look good. All my stuff from London's arrived, by the way. Books, china, even saucepans.'

‘Have you got a fridge yet?'

‘Up and running. And a freezer. And a washing-machine. It feels like home.'

Cassie nodded. ‘So it should. And when am I going to see some photographs?'

‘Soon. I've got a few frames left on one of the films I took to Florence, so I'll shoot them off when I get a chance.' She'd even record the continuing horror of the living room and its boxes.

‘Didn't you meet
any
young men while you were away? I've a mind to be a great-
great
-aunt. There's a woman in a room down the corridor never stops going on about her family. Never.'

‘There were a couple of nice South Africans: we had dinner with them one night because there wasn't a vacant table and we all spoke English. I think we swapped phone numbers, but I'm not holding my breath. And there was a young man on the flight back – very solicitous. He'd been on a huge shopping spree – oh, his work, not pleasure. Which reminds me—' Kate fished in her bag, producing Punt e Mes and Vermouth. ‘Just as a change from gin,' she said. ‘And here are a couple of oranges to add to the Punt e Mes – thin slices, just like lemon in gin. And plenty of ice. Is what' shername still keeping your ice-bucket topped up?' Cassie had arrived at a highly unorthodox agreement with one of the nursing staff to ensure her gin was always the right temperature.

‘Silly girl got herself pregnant. There's a new girl. Rosie, I think she calls herself. A care assistant. She's in some sort of trouble, too. I know she is. But she won't talk to me. I said, “My great-niece is in the police,” I said. “She'd know how to help.” But she just sniffed and said everything'd be all right. I gave her your phone number, just in case. So if she calls, you'll know why. Now, tell me about this young man …'

‘If you ask me,' Cassie said, ‘he's got to be careful – yes, I will have another drop of that stuff with the orange – that young man. Go on: it's not rationed! All that money – what if he can't sell the stuff on?'

‘He must have some sort of contract with these firms, I suppose. And he said he'd run credit checks on them. I'm not sure how you do that – do you get a bank reference?'

‘Banks! The references they give are designed to protect the bank! They're so hedged round with
to the best of our knowledge
and
without prejudice
, what they say isn't worth the paper it's written on. No, you need to ask other firms – that's what my Arthur always used to say. And he ought to know.' She spread her hands, grotesque with arthritis under those heavy rings. Arthur had done Cassie proud before he retired from his jewellery business. ‘His nephew's sorted out those diamonds for me. The ones you found under my floor. Well, your floor now. Got a better price than I expected. But he's kept back the best three: two for ear-studs. And one for your engagement ring.'

The best way to divert her from this theme was to pursue another topic. Kate asked, ‘So you talk to other firms who've dealt with your customers – ask if they always pay their bills.'

‘And how prompt they are in paying. You people in the police get a nice pay-packet at the end of every month. You don't in business. You get what other people pay. Arthur was often owed thousands of pounds, thousands. But he kept afloat because of his reserves. And because people would give him credit. When your creditors start pressing you, you need to know when you're going to be paid. Indeed,
that
you're going to be paid. So, before you give anyone credit, you contact people who'll know whether they can be relied on for prompt payment and how much credit they can be trusted with.'

Kate nodded. ‘This guy seemed to think he'd sorted everything out.'

‘How thoroughly?'

She spread her hands. ‘His problem, not mine. Maybe I'll phone him later this week – we talked about having dinner when my cold had cleared. But don't get all excited – it wasn't like in those books you've taken to reading. It wasn't love at first sight, Auntie.'

Cassie sniffed. ‘When is it ever? But are you over that Robin of yours?'

Even now, when someone mentioned his name unexpectedly, it was all Kate could do not to cry out. Perhaps if she freshened her own drink she could manage. Not enough to risk her licence. Just for something to do while she put her thoughts in some sort of order.

She turned back to Cassie. ‘I don't seem to be throwing up quite so much these days. Oh, I still miss him – when we climbed up the Duomo dome, I wanted … Oh, you know how it is.'

‘Better to cry than to be sick.' Cassie thrust her bedside box of tissues at her. ‘I'd say you were well on the way to recovery. Just remember there's no man who isn't replaceable.'

‘Amen to that!'

Kate nearly dropped her glass. She turned to see who'd spoken. It was the care assistant with the ice.

‘They've all got these quiet shoes,' Cassie complained. ‘They scare you to death when they come creeping over the carpets. Mind you, I suppose I'd better enjoy the carpets: when you start having accidents they demote you to rooms with vinyl flooring – easier to mop up, I suppose. Now, how are you, Rosie? Come over here and let me have a look at you. No more cupboards walking into you?'

‘You and your jokes, Cassie!'

‘How else did you get your black eye and split lip? Come on, Rosie. I told you, Kate here's in the police. You can tell her.'

Kate smiled, in vain, she thought. Rosie stared at her, nodded, and went out. She was limping slightly.

She'd no idea what time it was when she got back from Cassie's, but she thought she'd better make a last check on Zenia. Zenia's washing was done: she had some of those old-fashioned, slatted, drying racks – the memory forced itself on Kate – the sort Robin had hung over the Aga in her old house.
Just hang the clothes up, that's all
.

Zenia herself did look slightly better, but coughed every time she tried to speak. In the end they flapped hands at each other and Kate slipped home.

Her house was silent. Silent enough to hear the rain tapping the uncurtained windows downstairs. Snapping on the radio she dragged her washing from the machine. No, she'd better tumble it. She could do with some racks like – like Zenia's.

What about a whisky?

What about a cocoa, more like?

Perhaps it was the cold making her feel so low. Or rather, the cold's residue of thick mucus and throbbing sinuses. And the cough, which had made an unwelcome return as soon as she came into the kitchen – all the powdery cement chipping off the floor. Roll on Friday and the new floor-covering, chosen for cheapness rather than style.

It'd be nice to curl up with the phone, and have a natter – to talk to someone on her terms, as opposed to Cassie's. Phone who? One of her London mates, of course – an old pal from the Met. Why no one in Birmingham? Because there was hardly anyone she could call a friend. Oh, inside the squad there was Colin, but his private life had a very thick veil across it, and though at work they could confide in each other, she still wasn't sure of his welcoming a call at this time. What about that young man on the plane? Alan? No, too late for a stranger to call. There was no one else. Certainly not Graham Harvey, whose wife's interest in his calls necessitated dialling one four one.

Kate squared her shoulders. Better an empty house than an unhappy one. If she got through another of her London boxes, she'd reward herself with a hot shower and a couple of those delectable Italian chocolates.

And tomorrow she'd start organising herself a social life.

Chapter Three

‘It's Mr Rhyll, is it?' Kate asked doubtfully. ‘I'm Detective Sergeant Kate Power and this is Detective Constable Colin Roper.'

The pharmacist, an intelligent looking man in his early fifties, stood back to let them into his inner sanctum, the dispensary. ‘Hill,' he said, moving his lips, tongue and jaw with some emphasis. ‘Hill.'

She rubbed at her ear. Of course: Mr Hill.

He looked at her closely; she rubbed her ear again.

‘That's where they got in.' He jerked his head upwards at a small skylight. ‘I've had the glass reinforced with polycarbonate sheeting, I've had that grid fitted. And still they managed to get in.'

‘Must have been after growth-enhancing drugs,' Colin said.

‘Or maybe it's a teenage girl, size six,' Kate said, trying to stifle a cough.

‘If we can sort out your crime, you couldn't sort out Kate's attack of plague, could you?' Colin asked, stepping back a couple of paces. ‘I'll swear it's become a death rattle.'

The pharmacist laughed and passed them mugs of coffee. He leaned back on his stool. ‘Which shall we deal with first?'

‘The crime,' she said, coughing again.

‘Are you sure? OK, apart from that one vulnerable spot, the place is like Fort Knox: all those grids, the metal pull-down blinds and the alarm. Oh, I've talked to your crime prevention people. Implemented all their suggestions. That was after Chummie got in up next-door's fire escape, into their lavatory, up into the loft and down through my ceiling.'

‘After the usual, I suppose?'

Hill nodded. ‘I gave a list of what had gone to your local colleagues, the uniform people. You can have another.' He turned to his computer and clicked on the Print icon.

‘You're lucky,' Kate said, ‘that they didn't take that.'

For answer he slipped down from the stool and peered under the bench. Kate and Colin looked too. The computer shell was attached to the bench with half-inch bolts.

‘No one can say you're not doing your best!' she said. ‘But they could still come back for that thing's innards – that's what they like these days. Portable and sellable.'

‘Like the stuff they've taken,' Colin said, scanning the list as it peeled from the printer. ‘You know, I have this fantasy I'll come out to a job like this to find they've skipped all the serious drugs and just nicked a trolley load of surgical appliances.'

Hill grinned. He was an attractive man, carrying his years well. ‘Don't hold your breath. Especially you, Sergeant!'

‘Kate,' she said.

‘Kate.' He checked the list. ‘Mind you, you'd be safe enough: they've left the chest sprays, this time.'

‘
Chest sprays?
Why nick chest sprays?'

‘They cost a bomb overseas. Fifteen hundred pounds for a Ventolin. A month's salary for a professional in some parts of Africa.'

‘And less than six pounds on the NHS.'

Hill shook his head, his mouth tightening. ‘Yes, but think what six pounds means to someone round here. Particularly if there's another couple of items on the scrip. The times I have to choose which drugs they have to have, as opposed to those they simply ought to have.'

They shook their heads, chastened. Kate tried to smother another cough. Hill relented, gesturing grandly at his shelves. ‘Look at this lot here. Proprietary this, antibiotic that. What I'd recommend, however, for that chest of yours, is a lot of steam. Just steam. You can add a drop of menthol if you really insist, but believe me, steam's the best remedy. A basin with a towel over your head's cheapest, but I can sell you one of these little plastic inhaler affairs if you really want to part with your money – you put the hot water in here, put the mask over your face – and there you are.'

BOOK: Staying Power
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