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Authors: Barbara Cleverly

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The Damascened Blade (11 page)

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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‘Could he have been coming to see me?’ said Grace. ‘Obviously taken ill in the night and seeking assistance. Any opinion on that, Iskander?’

‘I think you are right, Dr Holbrook.’ Iskander spoke automatically and slowly, as one shocked. ‘If he were taken ill he would have sought your help but only as a last resort. That is the Pathan way. He would not have come to look for me because I too am a man and a Pathan.’

Seeing incomprehension all around he elaborated. ‘Sickness like this is despised amongst us.’ He waved an impatient hand at the trail of vomit. ‘It is a weak and womanly thing. If you were unlucky enough to suffer such a thing you would suffer it alone and never draw attention to it. He must have been in fear of his life if he attempted to reach the doctor.’

‘That’s true,’ said James, and Grace nodded, her own opinion confirmed.

The poor, distressed body of Zeman and the sad evidence of a lonely and agonized death only filled the forefront of everyone’s mind. All realized that the body before them was more dangerous dead than it had been in life. It needed but one Afghan to shout ‘murder’, Joe thought, and the fort would explode. And more than the fort. There were considerations here – badal, melmastia, a whole melting pot of barely controlled emotions and compulsions. It would be impossible to mourn the dead man until the facts of his death had been established.

James stood for a moment, unable to move.

‘James, why don’t you let me deal with this?’ said Joe. ‘Get some help and we’ll take his body down to the hospital. Perhaps you would be willing to give it a proper examination, Grace? Would you agree to that, Iskander?’

Iskander thought for a moment and everyone was still, waiting for his reaction. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘certainly. I would, of course, much prefer simply to bury my friend but these are unusual circumstances, an unusual death. It is important for everyone to be clear as to how Zeman died. Dr Holbrook is the only one who can tell us this and she is trusted alike by you and by us. She is aware of our customs and religious observances and I am confident that she will honour them and show respect for the dead. But I would ask that three of my men be summoned to be present also. The Amir would expect it,’ he added. He moved with an almost ceremoniously protective gesture to put himself between the body of his friend and the rest of the company. ‘If you would kindly have a stretcher sent we will carry our kinsman down to the hospital. Meanwhile, I will guard his body.’

The body of Zeman was laid out on a table in the morgue of the hospital. He lay soiled and lifeless but commanding even in death. ‘What a bloody waste,’ thought Joe. ‘All his life before him. I liked and admired him. That man could have been my friend.’ Three wide-eyed Afghan officers briefed by Iskander stood solemnly in the background, watchful and suspicious, and Grace began her post-mortem examination.

‘Now you do all understand that I am not a pathologist,’ said Grace, fixing on a pair of spectacles. ‘But I do appreciate that Muslims bury their dead very swiftly and if we are going to get to the bottom of the cause of Zeman’s death, I’ll have to do my best. Sir Bernard Spilsbury would find much to fault in my performance, I’m sure.’

‘Grace,’ said James, ‘he’s in London, you are here. You’re the best doctor in India and more importantly you’re the only civilian doctor for three hundred miles so go ahead. Our own MO here is a jolly fine chap, as you know, you trained him after all – and none better when it comes to treating bullet wounds and sunstroke but he’d be the first to say, “Let Dr Holbrook do it.” ’

Grace stripped away Zeman’s clothing with assistance from Iskander and began to work away patiently with a steady hand, giving a commentary on what she was doing in English and in Pushtu. She took the temperature of the body. She examined eyelids and lower jaw explaining that these areas would give the earliest and the clearest indication of the onset of rigor mortis but following this with the caveat that the relatively low temperature of the stone staircase would have delayed rigor. She asked her audience to mark the beginnings of hypostasis, pointing out the tell-tale pattern of staining which showed the points where his body had been in contact with the hard stone steps. They noted the livid bluish colour which had begun to gather at the waist and in the right buttock and thigh. Proof, as all witnessed, that his body had lain there where found for some hours and had not been moved from some other place and put on the stairs. She examined his limbs and torso finding no wounds, no puncture marks, nothing unusual.

Such an intimate examination of the body of their senior officer must have been unbearably stressful for the Afghans, Joe thought, but so extreme were the circumstances of the man’s death and so acute the need to know the truth, they watched on, silent and wary. And the whole thing was only possible thanks to the impersonal, efficient and thoroughly scientific procedure Grace was demonstrating.

Finally, a gruelling hour later, she was ready to sum up. Pointing to a white china dish which held a sample of the vomit taken from the mouth and throat she said, ‘Well, there you have it. The matter expelled consists, as you might expect, of semi-digested particles of the food Zeman ate at the banquet, poultry, rice, fruit and so on. I see no evidence of foreign matter but lacking the facilities of a chemistry laboratory that is as much as I am able to say. The state of digestion, as you see from the size of the particles, is not very advanced and this gives us an indication of the time of death. A time which is borne out, I may say, by the temperature of the body and the progress of rigor.’

‘But why Zeman?’ Iskander interrupted. ‘We all ate the food. No one else has been affected!’

James and Grace looked at each other in horror and each said, ‘Oh, my God!’

‘What? What are you saying? Who . . .?’ said Iskander.

‘She’s all right, Grace,’ James burst out, grasping her hand. ‘When I left her this morning she was sleeping like a baby and just as pink. She’s all right!’

‘I think you’d better tell us what happened in the night, Grace,’ said Joe. Turning to Iskander he said, ‘I think you should know. I heard a noise at three o’clock and woke. When I looked into the corridor Grace was going along to attend to Mrs Lindsay.’

‘James fetched me. And yes, it would have been at about three. I – we both – assumed it was a return of the sickness she’s been suffering from lately, aggravated, no doubt, by the unaccustomed rich food. She told me she had a stomach pain, had vomited and she had a high temperature. I gave her some drops of Chlorodyne and she began to feel better. I sat with her for half an hour and she fell comfortably asleep so I went back to my room.’

Echoing everyone’s alarm, James said, ‘Look, I’m going to send a bearer to knock up everyone who was at dinner last evening and check whether they’ve been ill in the night. Who’s left? That’s Fred, Burroughs and Rathmore. Lily, as we saw for ourselves, is unscathed.’

He gave orders to a Scout standing in attendance.

‘While we’re waiting . . . is there any other aspect we haven’t covered? Any other possible cause of this sickness? I’m trying to avoid saying the dreaded word . . .’

‘It’s not cholera. No,’ said Grace firmly. ‘Nor yet dysentery. But you’re right. We’ve been concentrating on the internal workings. A poisonous bite perhaps from animal or reptile? As you all saw, there were no puncture marks on his body. A crack on the head will sometimes make you vomit, though perhaps not so . . . um . . . copiously. No sign of blood anywhere.’ She had already taken off Zeman’s turban and inspected his head but now she pushed her fingers gently into the thick black hair and palpated the skull inch by inch. With her fingers just beyond the right temple she stopped. She moved them slowly over the interesting patch again and sighed. ‘There it is! Nearly missed it. There’s an indentation. Three inches long and dead straight. Would you like to feel this, Iskander?’

He nodded and allowed her to guide his finger to the spot. He nodded again. ‘As you say,’ he confirmed.

The tension in the room was growing. The Afghan soldiers muttered to each other.

‘A crack on the head! That’s all we need!’ Joe thought desperately. ‘The Amir’s bloody cousin, son of the local Afridi bad boy, killed in suspicious circumstances while he’s under James’s roof, protected by the shield of melmastia. Killed by one of us! We’ll never get out of this alive! Grace, couldn’t you have kept your mouth shut?’

But Grace now had the bit between her teeth, the complete professional, absorbed in her task and, watched intently, she was busily shaving away the hair from the suspected wound. ‘There!’ she announced with satisfaction. ‘No wonder I didn’t spot it. No bleeding, you see, and very little distortion.’

‘It’s very straight,’ Iskander commented, his eyes watchful like a stalking cat.

‘Yes, isn’t it?’ said Grace apparently unconcerned. ‘As the skin has not been penetrated to any depth it was obviously not a blow from a talwar or sharp blade of any kind. The skull has not been crushed so it’s not a rifle butt or any of the blunt offensive weapons I expect you come across every day in your work, Commander.’

Joe caught the edge of something in Grace’s tone. She was appealing to him in some way. ‘The poor old girl’s probably feeling the strain of all this, though she hides it well,’ he thought. ‘It’s been a one woman show so far and she’s done it beautifully but she needs some help.’

‘You’re right, Doctor. Not the blow of someone attempting to kill him, you’d say. Just one blow and such an unlikely wound formation,’ he said. ‘In my experience of head wounds battering occurs. You find several blows on different parts of the skull delivered in uncontrollable rage or to make absolutely certain. And there are no defensive wounds visible, are there? I mean injuries to the hands and arms which a victim receives in his attempts to ward off the attack.’ He looked again carefully at Zeman’s hands and lower arms. ‘No scratches. Not even a broken nail.’ And then, ‘Good Lord! I know what this is! Iskander – Zeman was lying slightly on one side when we found him, wasn’t he? Which side? Do you remember?’

Iskander was ahead of him and broke in, ‘It was the right side. Like this.’ He demonstrated the position. ‘And Zeman’s head was resting across the step . . . like this. Are you saying, Sandilands, that he collapsed on the stairs and cracked his head on the straight edge? They are stone, those steps, are they not?’

‘They are, and very sharp-edged! I barked my shin on one while we were carrying the body around earlier. There you are!’ He rolled up his trouser leg and revealed a livid bruise across his shin. ‘Same sort of injury.’

‘Mmm . . . that has to be speculation though. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?’ said Grace.

Wretched woman! Did she never know when to stop? Joe wondered.

Taking a magnifying glass from her kit she peered over the wound, grunted, smiled with grim satisfaction, reached for a pair of tweezers and plucked out something invisible to everyone standing by.

Iskander knew what was required of him.

‘They’re doing a bloody double act,’ Joe thought. ‘What
is
going on?’

Iskander took the magnifying glass and held it over the end of the tweezers. He breathed out a gusty sigh. Of relief?

‘A flake of white stone,’ he announced solemnly.

The Afghanis queued up to examine it in turn, each sighing and nodding.

‘So,’ said Iskander with authority, ‘we are evidently looking at a death by natural causes. Zeman eats something infected at supper, leaves it late before he attempts to seek help, dies on the stairs and hits his head as he falls.’

One of the other Afghanis said something hesitantly and Iskander nodded gravely. ‘My friend is asking, Dr Holbrook, what are the possibilities that Zeman was poisoned? Poisoned deliberately?’

Again in two languages Grace began, ‘It is certainly possible. Even likely. For this reason we must gather together all who were at the evening meal and find whether anyone else has been affected. We must establish the course of the meal, exactly what he ate and drank. James, could we meet at once in the library? No – back in the durbar hall – it may help people to remember more clearly. It would be a good idea to have last night’s kitchen staff standing by in case we need to speak to them. And, Iskander, I would like your officers to be present at our deliberations.’

James gave instructions to his men, who hurried off. ‘I’ve said – in the durbar hall in ten minutes. Hope that’s all right?’

The hall when they assembled was clean and bright with no sign of the previous night’s party. Joe and James dragged a rug into the middle of the floor and, as the other six people arrived, directed them to sit where they had been the night before.

News of the death of Zeman had spread. Fred Moore-Simpson slipped into his place next to Iskander, briefly placing a comforting arm around his shoulder and murmuring, ‘Awfully sorry to hear what’s happened. Dreadful, simply dreadful! He was a fine man. Let me know if there’s anything – anything – I can do.’

Rathmore came in looking, Joe thought, shaken and apprehensive. Joe was automatically noting everyone’s appearance, not quite certain himself what he was looking for but taking in details any of which might at some later point need to be dredged from his unconscious. And there was something different about Rathmore besides his loss of cockiness. He was walking unsteadily. Yes, definitely favouring his right foot. Hardly able to meet Iskander’s eye, ‘James, Iskander,’ he said with a nod to each. ‘Shocking bad news. Food poisoning is what I hear? Hasn’t affected me, I’m pleased to say. Is that what you wanted to know?’ He sat down when invited to do so on the right of Iskander as before.

Pale and exhausted, Edwin Burroughs was next to arrive. He merely nodded and took his seat. Lily, arm in arm with Betty, was the last to come down. With a cry of concern, James hurried to lower Betty on to her cushion. Betty looked miserable, white and pinched, and she twisted a handkerchief in her hands in agitation. The three Afghani officers ranged themselves around the room, an ominous presence.

‘Well,’ said Burroughs, finding his voice, ‘is someone going to tell us why we’re here? Isn’t this where the chap from Scotland Yard tells us we’re all under arrest?’

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
4.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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