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Authors: Kate Ellis

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BOOK: The Plague Maiden
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‘We didn’t go to bed. We did it in the utility room,’ she mumbled. Then she looked Wesley in the eye. ‘Look, it was completely
out of character for me. I don’t make a habit of that sort of thing. But Chris … well, I’d never been attracted to anyone
like that before. It was …’ She hesitated, trying to find the right words.

‘Love at first sight?’ Wesley suggested, aware that he was sounding like a clichéd romantic novel.

Janet shook her head. ‘I don’t know. It was more like a magnetic animal attraction. I … I couldn’t help myself. And neither
could he.’

‘And your husband? Did he know about all this?’

She shook her head vigorously. ‘No way. I made sure he had no idea what was going on. Chris wanted me to leave Derek but after
the first couple of weeks … well, I realised that I couldn’t give up everything. It was physical, you see, and after the first
flush of excitement was over I think I realised. We’d meet and go back to Chris’s place in Morbay and …’

‘You compared that with what you’d have to give up?’

‘That sounds awful, doesn’t it? It sounds as though I’m a hard, mercenary bitch.’

Wesley shook his head. ‘Not at all. It sounds as if you’re a realist. Did you know about Chris’s criminal record?’

‘He told me. I think the affair was more serious on his part than mine … in fact I know it was. He said he wanted to be completely
honest with me. He said he’d been done for burglary and car theft … and receiving stolen goods. But he said that if I went
to live with him that would all change. The night that vicar was killed was the last time I saw him. Derek, my husband, decided
to go and work in New York – it all happened very quickly. I met Chris to tell him I was going to the States. I told him it
was all over.’ She hesitated. ‘Do you think what Chris said was true? Do you think he would have changed if I’d … ?’

Wesley didn’t answer. Who could know what might have been? But it was obvious that the question had preyed on Janet’s mind.
His instinct was to reassure her, to tell her that most men like Hobson, although they might mean what they say at the time,
usually slip back into their old ways once the novelty of a new relationship has worn off and their old mates reassert their
influence. But for all he knew, Chris Hobson might have been the exception to the rule, so it was probably best to say nothing.

‘So why don’t you tell me what happened on the night of
the Reverend Shipborne’s murder?’ It was time to get down to the nub of the matter … her claim that Chris Hobson was innocent.

‘Chris was with me all that evening.’

Wesley looked her in the eye. ‘If this is true why didn’t you come forward?’

She blushed again. ‘I feel awful about it now, believe me. I’d heard all about the vicar’s murder on the news the next day,
but of course I never connected it with Chris. Then I moved to New York with Derek a week later so I didn’t know Chris had
been arrested for it.’ She took a tissue from her coat pocket and dabbed at her eyes, although Wesley could see no tears there.

‘So you and Chris Hobson had no contact once you’d moved to New York?’

‘No. It was a clean break … a new start. I didn’t even tell him what part of America I was going to.’

‘But you’ve decided to come forward now?’


‘After twelve years.’ He tried to keep his voice neutral, to hide any hint of reproach.

‘As I said, I didn’t even know Chris had been arrested. I’ve been living in the States for twelve years … we only got back
to England a couple of months ago.’

‘So how did you find out Hobson was in jail for Shipborne’s murder?’

Her restless fingers began to play with the silk scarf she was wearing. ‘About four weeks ago I saw him in an episode of that
TV documentary …
, I think it’s called. It said he was serving life for murder and I couldn’t believe it. I had to know what it was he’d done
… I assumed that whatever it was must have happened while I was in the States. Anyway, I went to the local newspaper office
to look through their archives and I had the shock of my life when I found he’d been convicted of the Belsham murder. I mean,
he can’t have done it. We were together that night. We met in Belsham but we didn’t stay there long.’

‘Why have you waited four weeks to come forward?’

She looked sheepish. ‘I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether it was too late to come forward or … then there was
the thought of Derek finding out about …’

‘But you’ve decided to tell us now?’

‘When I saw Chris on TV he looked so old. I couldn’t just let him rot in that awful place. I had to tell the truth.’

She paused and took a packet of cigarettes from her handbag. She waved the packet vaguely in Wesley’s direction but when he
refused she took out a cigarette, lit it with a gold lighter and inhaled deeply.

Then she sat forward and looked Wesley in the eye. ‘And besides, last week Derek, my husband, told me he’s having an affair
with one of the barmaids at the golf club and he wants a divorce. After all these years he wants a bloody divorce.’

Wesley saw anger in her eyes. More than anger … the fury of a woman scorned. Perhaps this confession of infidelity had nothing
to do with sympathy for Hobson’s plight. Perhaps it was a means of revenge … a way of humiliating her errant husband with
the public revelation that she had had to seek satisfaction elsewhere in the course of their marriage. Or perhaps it was just
that her reason for staying silent had gone.

‘I’ve been wondering what to do for the best,’ she said piously. ‘I’ve been feeling so guilty.’

But not guilty enough to come forward before your husband ran off with a barmaid, thought Wesley. He didn’t really know what
to make of Mrs Janet Powell – was she a basically honest woman motivated by a fit of conscience or was she a manipulative
bitch playing some sly game? He sat back and watched her, giving her the benefit of the doubt.

‘I think it would be best if you told me exactly what happened on the evening of the Reverend Shipborne’s murder, don’t you?’

She paused, gathering her thoughts, before embarking on
her story. ‘I’d decided I was going to the States with Derek and I knew I had to finish my affair with Chris. It had been
nice while it lasted but I suppose I knew it was just sexual on my part. I’d realised that Chris was just a petty villain
and we came from different worlds … different ways of thinking and behaving. Does that sound snobbish?’

Wesley didn’t know how to answer so he just shook his head.

‘Anyway, I was starting to suspect that he was getting too serious and that was the last thing I wanted. I arranged to meet
him outside the pub in Belsham … the Horse and Farrier. I didn’t know anyone in Belsham so I thought it’d be safe. I met him
at seven outside the pub as arranged. He’d been in the pub and had a drink … I could smell the beer on his breath. We talked
in my car for ages … must have been almost an hour. I told him about America and I said I couldn’t see him again. Then we
went for a drive.’

‘Where to?’

‘Just around. I think I drove through some villages – I remember we passed Berry Ducis castle – and then to Morbay. We ended
up at his flat. He wanted me to go in so I did … for old times’ sake. I was there till after midnight. I left him in bed,’
she added coyly.

‘How did he react when you told him you were going to the States with your husband?’

‘He said he loved me. He said he’d wait for me no matter how long it took. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t feel like that
and by then I just wanted to get him out of my life.’

‘So when did you find out about the Reverend Shipborne’s murder?’

‘I read all about it in the paper the next day, of course. I took a particular interest because I’d been in Belsham around
that time and I still recall all the details.’ She closed her eyes tight, as though trying to remember. ‘It said the vicar
was killed between five to seven when his cleaner left and ten when she went back and found him. I remember I’d
met Chris at seven on the dot and we talked in the car in the pub carpark for ages. We were probably there at the time of
the murder but I certainly didn’t see anything. And Chris definitely couldn’t have done it because he was with me all that
time.’ She looked Wesley in the eye. ‘How did he come to be arrested? Surely they didn’t have any evidence against him.’

Wesley said nothing.

‘Didn’t he tell them he was with me?’ she asked, puzzled.

‘Not when they arrested him.’

‘He probably wanted to keep my name out of it,’ she said quietly.

‘Later on, when he was charged, he changed his story. He said he’d been with a woman who was no longer in the country and
he didn’t know where to find her. But by then the evidence against him was overwhelming so I don’t think this tale of a mystery
woman was taken too seriously.’

In the file this last-minute alibi had been mentioned as an afterthought and Wesley couldn’t even remember seeing Janet’s
name. His only thought was that if Hobson hadn’t told the police about Janet’s involvement as soon as he was questioned because
of love, he had been a complete fool.

‘At least I can put things right now,’ she said, smiling shyly.

Wesley stood up. It’s a pity for Chris Hobson that you didn’t put things right twelve years ago, he thought to himself as
he took a witness statement form from the drawer.

Fred Sommerby didn’t cry as the nurse covered his wife’s face with the sheet. Fred had never cried. Crying was for women.
He looked at the small shape beneath the sheet and felt no emotion: no sadness, no elation, no regret. Nothing.

The nurse looked at him. She was plump with a kind face and she reminded him of a cow. Her eyes were full of sympathy – the
smooth sympathy of the professional carer.
She was asking him whether he would like a nice cup of tea. He stared at her, wanting to wipe the smug, dogooding smirk off
her stupid face. He mumbled something that she took for a yes and she hurried away.

He stared down at Edith’s body. She looked so small and insignificant. They’d taken all the tubes out, which was good. He
hadn’t liked the tubes. They’d made her seem strange, inhuman – not like his Edith at all.

The nurse returned with tea and ushered him into a side room with practised efficiency. The small room was carpeted and the
low coffee table in the centre was covered with a selection of two-year-old editions of
Country Life
and last year’s Sunday supplements. Around the pale pink walls stood six institutional easy chairs, upholstered in light
blue tweed. This was the room set aside for grieving relatives.

The nurse announced that the doctor would be along in a moment to speak to him, as if this was some honour he should be looking
forward to. Fred said nothing. There was nothing to say. Edith had gone. And he would mourn her in his own way. Not here in
front of others.

Fred ignored the magazines and sat staring ahead for ten minutes until Dr Choudray entered the room.

‘I’m very sorry about your wife,’ the doctor began, his face solemn. ‘We did all we could.’

Fred stared at him and said nothing. He didn’t like Indian doctors … in his opinion there were far too many of them. He stood
up. He had nothing to say and he wanted to get home, back to the bungalow.

Dr Choudray, seeing that Fred intended to leave, put a gentle hand on his sleeve. ‘Please, Mr Sommerby, sit down. There are
some questions I need to ask you.’ He spoke in English more precise, more perfect, than Fred’s own, another mark against him.

Fred ignored the hand and stayed standing. ‘She’s bloody dead, isn’t she? There’s nothing more to be said. She’s gone.’

The doctor stood looking at him for a few seconds, flummoxed. They didn’t usually behave like this. But then grief affected
people in different ways. Or was it grief? Dr Choudray wouldn’t have been surprised if it was relief. He put himself between
Fred and the door.

‘We were rather puzzled by some marks found on your wife’s body. Bruises.’

‘She was a clumsy cow.’

Choudray looked at him, shocked, fearful that his and Sister Atkins’s worst suspicions were about to be confirmed.

‘They weren’t consistent with falls or accidents, Mr Sommerby. It was almost as if someone had been beating her over a long
period of time. And we found evidence of untreated fractures. Now I’m a doctor and I don’t know the legal position but …’

The doctor was quite unprepared for Fred Sommerby’s strength as he shoved him aside and made for the door, waving his walking
stick like a weapon before him. The doctor lost his balance and fell against one of the easy chairs, the upholstery softening
his inevitable fall.

By the time Dr Choudray had stood up, unhurt apart from his dignity, Fred Sommerby had disappeared out of the swing-doors.

As the doctor walked out of the room, looking slightly shaken, Sister Atkins hurried over to him.

‘Are you all right, Doctor?’ she asked. She sounded worried.

‘I’ve just had a rather unpleasant encounter with Mr Sommerby.’

‘Did you ask him about … ?’

‘Yes. But I don’t think I handled it too well.’

‘Well, we can mention it to the police when we tell them about the other thing.’

‘What other thing?’

Sister Atkins looked smug. ‘It might take a few days for the results to come back from the lab but I’m as certain as
I can be that Mrs Sommerby was suffering from botulism poisoning. I think I told you before that I’d seen a couple of cases
of it when I was working up North. Mrs Sommerby showed identical symptoms. I really think it’s time to report it to the pubic
health authorities … and the police, in view of that request they made.’

Dr Choudray hesitated. He was a cautious man but Sister Atkins seemed so sure of herself. ‘I still think we should wait until
we’re absolutely certain. We don’t want to waste their time, do we?’

Sister Atkins said nothing and turned to go.

As she bustled off, Dr Choudray noticed that one of the contract cleaners was standing leaning on a floor polisher, watching
her departure with interest. He had not seen the cleaner before – they changed so often: high turnover of staff – but he was
sure that every word he had exchanged with Sister Atkins had been overheard.

BOOK: The Plague Maiden
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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