Authors: Keith McCarthy
© Keith McCarthy 2004
Keith McCarthy has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 2004 by Constable.
This edition published in 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
The old man moved with increasing frailty around the large house, feeling the cold more deeply, the damp more painfully. The draughts that accompanied him to bed each night were becoming harsher in their whispering viciousness, less willing to give him mercy. Soon, he knew, he would have to move his bedroom down to the ground floor, as if he were a cripple, but at least then he would not have to negotiate the rickety second flight where the bulb had blown and he could not replace it. Twice in the past month he had fallen there, lucky not to have died and thereby solved his problem.
He sat at the bench and scribbled on printouts, just as he often did, just as he planned to do until he had what he wanted, until he had found the cure. That he was close, he was certain; but close was failure, and failure was death.
money into a final project, one to repair the damage. That he had chosen not to tell the others was
He guessed that he didn't have too much time left to him. His ankles were tending to swell, his breathing to complain unless he propped himself on pillows. Once, he had lost consciousness, a staccato, irregular pulse beating in his ears; his last thoughts as the world greyed had been that he was dying, but he had once again been spared.
He should have gone to a doctor — there was one, but only one — knew that it was merely cowardice that stopped him. If his heart stopped, he would not then have to face death by a far more vicious, far more painful killer; that he would be spared what the other five would probably have to endure.
So he ignored the signs and symptoms of his heart disease, and strove to try to put right the wrong that had been done.
She had lived with no one and was not sociable, two factors which contributed to a solitary end. Had she not been in work, she might have been alone in her death for many more days, allowing entropy to seep into her tissues, dissolve them into vapours and fluids, and thus reclaim her being into the uniformity of the universe. As it was, she had probably been dead for a day before Robin Turner, her supervisor in the laboratory, thought to telephone her, ostensibly because she was due to present her research findings at a seminar. Since she was supposedly ill in bed with influenza, the fact that there was no answer left him irritated — even if she were ill, she ought to have contacted him to let him know what was going on — although he could admit only to himself that such irritation was by far the main driver for his interest. When he telephoned again at eight the next morning and still received no answer, he began to experience genuine concern, although again he told no one else of this. She ought to have told him when he could expect her back. He asked the other post-doctoral students in the laboratory whether any of them had seen her since she had gone home early, complaining of a temperature, but none had. Few even knew where she lived, an unusual finding since the doctoral and post-doctoral students tended to live lives of great social complexity and not a little alcohol. The one person whom he had hoped would have information of use to him was Susan Warthin, her closest associate and apparently similarly allergic to male company, but she, too, was off sick, also stricken by that year's particular variant of influenza virus. He decided to ring her to see if she knew anything of her friend's condition.
The call was short and difficult. Susan Warthin was still feeling distinctly unwell and Turner hid his concern under a brisk and somewhat businesslike manner. No, she had not been in contact with her best friend since she had gone home sick. She was sure she must be quite ill not to have contacted Turner. When he asked her for the address, Susan Warthin denied having it.
Frustrated, Turner then went to the Personnel Department for the address but was once more refused this nugget of information, the idiot girl who answered the phone hiding behind some regulation about privacy.
After this, Turner sat in his office and wondered why he was now so worried, as if each reverse were a portent of oncoming doom. Yet why? Why was he so fearful?
She was sick, that was all. Just the flu.
But the past whispered to him and, try as he might, he could not silence it.
Susan Warthin still hadn't fully recovered as she sat on top of the bus the following morning.
, was the refrain which bounced soggily around her skull. Her chest felt as if she had been breathing in kettle descaler, her head seemed to be filled with a viscous fluid not unrelated to slurry and her limb muscles would not stop twitching. Every movement of the bus seemed to do peculiar things to her balance and subsequently to her stomach; that she had not eaten for four days did not preclude sinusoidal waves of nausea from sweeping all other sensations away in their ferocious assault upon her. Also the bus was intensely cold and extremely noisy.
Mad or not, Turner's phone call to her had started this insane adventure. When her phone call had, like his, been unanswered, she had begun to worry. Three further calls, the last at midnight, had served to increase her anxiety to the level at which it could not be ignored. Turner's concern had proved infectious, then, even though he had attempted to douse in the camouflage of dry, professorial indifference.
Indifference that might have fooled her, had she not been privy to the truth.
The words of this injunction came back to her through a blanket of misery.
She stepped achingly from the bus outside a run-down public house. It was beginning to rain and she hadn't thought to bring an umbrella; hadn't really thought at all. She felt so miserable she reckoned a few spots of rain wouldn't make matters worse, but when the sky began to pour water in a serious and determined manner she changed her mind. Dry misery was better than the wet kind after all.
The street was long and monotonous, strewn with rubbish and unfriendly. The hulk of the Hospital and Medical School loomed over it, an orange-red, square-edged edifice that had forsaken character for bulk. The few people she met looked as though only the apathy of dampness prevented them from knifing her. As she passed one house a dog, evidently large from the amplitude of the sound and the vigour of the scratching, took exception to her presence and began to bark ferociously from behind the front door. Several houses were boarded up.
She knew the area only vaguely, having been to the house on very few occasions, each one pervaded by a feeling of black foreboding. If the world were going to end, in places such as this there would be only relief.
She began to cough and had to stop, knowing that it was going to hurt. Unfortunately she was entirely correct and it was a further five minutes before she felt able to carry on.
At last she found the house and walked up to the front door. It was, as were most of the other houses in the street, a terraced house divided into two maisonettes. The evening was dark, cold and unpleasant, but there was sufficient light to see that the area was not salubrious. Some of the neighbours appeared to be under the impression that the small, walled-off area in front of each house was not a garden but a kind of personal refuse dump, kindly provided by the council in lieu of dustbins. Others had apparently decided that it was the ideal place to store animal hutches; what was in them could not be discerned and she did not investigate closely. The number of satellite dishes visible up and down the street was astronomical.
The ground floor was in darkness but there were lights on upstairs. She passed through the gap in the wall where once had hung a garden gate and was almost immediately standing in front of the door. There were two doorbells, one above the other. The light was poor and she had trouble reading the faint names scrawled in biro under each button. Hers was the bottom flat and presumably the bottom bell. She pushed the button and the cheap bell chimed within the darkness behind the door. There was no response.
The downstairs curtains were drawn in the front room, and that gave her a feeling of trepidation. The burning pain in her chest was still curiously vicious, the rain by now seeping down her neck and into her shoes.
After three minutes she repeated the action with no greater success. Then she tried the top flat but again without response. She looked through the glass of the front-room window but the curtains were thick and dark and drawn completely across.
There was an alley of sorts, she knew. It was narrow and would be extremely muddy in this weather, but it might enable her to gain access to the back of the house.
She trudged off further up the street until she came to a side road. She turned down this and walked the length of the house on her left; at its rear was a small garage, the door of which was tastefully decorated with a brightly-coloured representation of a breast, under which she was informed that "Kelly is a fucking tart." Beyond this was the entrance to the alley.
It was overgrown and dotted with dustbins, many of which were overturned. She expected to see rats but they were too quick for her. Branches of sooted trees blocked the path in many places, cascading yet more moisture on to her. The fences on either side were rotting and bowed. A pool of vomit stank.
The only way she could be sure that she had reached the right house was by counting back from the corner. In her state she just had to hope that she had not miscounted; the thought of what would happen to her if she were caught in the wrong garden was truly terrifying.
The garden gate was closed and for a moment she thought it was bolted. She pushed against it, putting her fingers on cobwebs and lichen. It didn't give at first but the second push caused it to move slightly, grating on the ground. A further push and it was just open enough for her to squeeze through.
The garden was overgrown but the vegetation was not thick enough to hide completely the garbage thrown around. There was glass everywhere and she had to pick her passage carefully to avoid what appeared to be excrement; in a place such as this she suspected it might be human.
At last she managed to traverse the twenty metres or so to the back of the house.
The curtains here were not drawn but it was dark in there and the windows were dirty. It took her a long while to make out anything at all. Then she began to discern a desk and the fireplace. Next she made out the bed and she saw that it was not made up, that the sheets and the blankets were hanging half off it, the pillows at an angle.
The first thing she saw on the floor was a glass tumbler on its side.
The second thing she saw on the floor was a head.
Frank Cowper hated cases like this. In truth he hated all cases of unexpected death, since he was a Coroner's Officer and all such cases fell under his jurisdiction, but deaths like this were the worst.
Murders — straight forward stabbings, shootings, bludgeonings — he could cope with because they were, like acts of God and income tax, inescapable; there
be lots of paperwork and they
have to pay for a forensic pathologist to come and perform the autopsy. There was no point in becoming distressed at their occurrence; one merely had to hold on until they had passed.
And some unexpected deaths he could, with a craft learned over many years in the job, subvert. The general practitioner might be persuaded to write a death certificate based on his knowledge of the patient, despite the fact that he had not seen him in his surgery for months or even years. Hospital doctors could occasionally be convinced of his towering medical knowledge and, like an accomplished illusionist, he could then lead them to certificate deaths even though they had never really been sure what the patient had actually been suffering with; this only worked with junior hospital doctors but they were usually the ones who were given the job of ringing him up. Rarely, but most pleasurably, these doctors could be persuaded to ask for a hospital autopsy — for which the Coroner's Office would not have to pay — thus allowing the correct cause of death to be found without undue expenditure on his part; unfortunately the hospital pathologists were mostly wise to this ploy and would often bounce them back to him.
Then there were the majority of deaths, ones in which there was no obvious homicide but in which no one could be persuaded to put their signatures to a cause of death. Mostly sudden collapses in the elderly but a fair admix of suicides, accidents both on and off the road, deaths possibly related to industrial diseases, and deaths in prison or on railway property. Like it or not, in such cases the fee for a Coroner's autopsy had to be paid. Of course then there was the further pain of the post-mortem result coming back as "unnatural," a word which caused him yet more angst since this would result in the expense and work of an inquest.
All these left only a very small minority of deaths, but they were always tricky; this was one such.
An unmarked police car drew up on the opposite side of the road, parking behind an untaxed, rusting van. Cowper got out of his car and went to join the man and woman who had just arrived. The man, Lambert, he knew but the woman was a stranger. She was, Cowper noted, really rather attractive, with blonde hair and a nice figure that Cowper would rather have liked to see more of. Like Lambert she had the weariness of a senior police officer, although Cowper was astute enough to notice that there was a hint of friction between them. His appearance before them did not lighten their mood.
"Frank," said Lambert by way of greeting. He was well built and tall, but he was very slightly paunched, just starting to get out of shape. He pulled his shoulders back and then suddenly forward as if stiff, then looked at the houses up and down the street. His face spoke of loathing. He was balding though his hair was strikingly black; only a fool would have made too much of this. When Cowper had been in the police force, Lambert had been one of his juniors; it had been a perfect position to view Cowper's loathsomeness and incompetence, but always in silence.
The woman, Beverley Wharton, ignored Cowper altogether. She had heard too much to feign any emotion whatsoever.
In desperation, Cowper turned to their driver, a rather effeminate young man with a grin on his face, and was relieved to receive a smile in return.