Thursday, 4th October
It was the link Dorothy eventually made between the tramp’s poisoning and the lethal soup that made it all even more awful. She and Cleo had definitely been in danger. Chris’s newest report was credible. Even if only small amounts of toadstool poisoning were consumed, it would cause severe illness and possibly death. Who could have done such a thing deliberately?
On Thursday morning Gary was as usual getting the day started at the cottage by making breakfast for PeggySue, Charlie, Lottie and himself when the phone rang.
“Chris. We’re having breakfast. Is it urgent?”
“Whoever poisoned that old tramp may have poisoned a dozen Finch Nightingales, Gary. Is that urgent enough?”
“What? Do you mean that Dorothy has hit the nail on the head again?”
“Middlethumpton General called me very early this morning. They thought it might be a tropical outbreak. Some of the women are in intensive care, Gary, and some of them are even on the death list.”
“Who would do such a thing?”
“I’m asking you that,” said Chris. “I’m only a humble scientist.”
“But you are suspicious.”
“Food poisoning is not a joke, Gary, and after that business with the tramp…”
“OK. I know that choir can’t sing for toffee, but why kill them off? There are other ways of avoiding listening to their caterwauling such as not going anywhere near them.”
“I have to know exactly what happened to those women, Gary. I’m a scientist. I avoid speculation.”
“You have my blessing.”
“The women apparently sampled the soup during the rehearsal interval,” said Chris. “In view of the amatoxins in Bates’s blood, I’ve ordered blood samples from all the women. You don’t suppose our poisoner has struck more than once, do you?”
“I don’t suppose anything,” said Gary. “I can’t think of a single thing that would connect a tramp and a ladies’ choir, Chris. Keep me posted for heaven’s sake!”
“That’s what I’m doing now.”
“And quite apart from tussles with toadstools, prepare yourself for another search of the Fargo villa and garden, Chris.”
“What are we going to look for now?”
“Human remains. I’ll call you from the office.”
If the issue of Dr Fargo’s disappearance had not been high on the list of priorities, Gary might have been inclined to wait a day or two before searching the villa.
If the issue of Toby Bates’ poisoning had not required urgent attention, the very idea that the soup served by Jane as light refreshment on a cool autumn evening was contaminated with the same poison might never have occurred to anyone.
Wednesday became the most dramatic in the history of the Finch Nightingales. Lisa Keys only heard about the dysentery outbreak through an anonymous phone-call. She thought immediately of the thick mushroom soup that others had guzzled, but she had avoided because of the calories. She had had a lucky escape, the anonymous caller had told her. She thought the dysentery must surely have been caused by even small amounts of Jane’s terrible cooking unless it was poisoned.
On Thursday morning, Cleo had to abandon her few quiet minutes under her duvet. All the babies were demanding instant attention. Without the two Charlottes, things would soon have been a logistic catastrophe, since Gary was now chewing over what Chris had told him and fully occupied with PeggySue. Fortunately, Grit would come in time to take the little girl to the nursery even after being out at the Oxford jazz club until the early hours.
Cleo remembered that the new au pair was arriving that day. Gary would make time to meet her. Would having an au pair make more problems than it solved?
“Did I hear you say ‘human remains’, Gary?” Cleo asked as she appeared at the breakfast table with the smallest twins, one on each arm.
“Speculation really, but Dr Fargo has to be found, dead or alive.”
“So you are not quite at odds with the agency theory?” said Cleo.
“Not quite and I can’t risk getting it wrong, can I?”
“No,” said Cleo. ““Talking about theories, Dorothy hit the spot last night with her ideas about amatoxin, too. Let’s hope the idea doesn’t catch on.”
“I think I’d rather have a shoot-out. There’s something very underhand about poison,” said Gary.
“Dorothy had only heard a rumour, Gary. She may not have believed what she was saying. Gossip from the hospital canteen has to be taken with a pinch of salt.”
“Who phoned her?” Gary asked. “Did she find out?”
“She didn’t tell me so she probably doesn’t know and tracing an informer can lead to not being informed again. The problem is that any hint of ill-doing sets off Dorothy’s imagination. She has wandered down enough dark corridors of her mind to fill a library.”
“Let me help with your infants!” said Gary, toadstools forgotten for a moment.
“Your infants too, Sweetheart.”
“I’m wondering who could have poisoned those Finch Nightingales.”
“That was waiting to happen if anything was,” said Cleo.
“I know they can’t sing, but is that a reason to kill them?”
“Someone obviously thought so, unless it was accidental or a dangerous prank,” said Cleo. “I’d prefer to think it was. Jane Barker now does the refreshments and according to Dorothy she turns up every week with home cooking. If the soup on Tuesday was anything to go by, I can’t imagine why the late Mr Barker raved about her cooking.”
“Could that be what killed him?” Gary said. “If so, we’ll have to bother Chris with more human remains.”
“I thought Mr Barker died a natural death, Gary.”
“There’s a difference between a natural death and the death certificate saying that. Was he cremated?”
“I doubt it. Widows like to have somewhere to go and shed tears. The cemetery is a good place for that.”
“Not personal experience, I hope.”
“I don’t know if Jay really is dead. If he is, I’d be unlikely to shed a tear,” said Cleo. “You aren’t suggesting that Jane Barker is a killer, are you?”
“They are under us, Cleo. You said so yourself. Anyone can kill, given motive and opportunity.”
“And toadstools, presumably.”
“You and Dorothy made that sound like a reasonable explanation. According to what Chris has now reported, you have had a narrow escape.”
“The soup was not tempting. Dorothy said it smelt funny.”
“So Dorothy does not just smell rats,” said Gary, handing one of the now very lively twins back to Cleo.
“First we need a genuine motive if it wasn’t a giant, cruel hoax,” said Cleo. “I’ll phone Dorothy. She’ll have constructive ideas. Jane is unlikely to have motive to kill off the new lease of life she found by joining the chorus.”
“Don’t rely on motives. It might work with one rich benefactor, but surely not with a whole pack of women!”
“You said it! If it wasn’t Jane, who put the poison in the soup?”
“I don’t usually go along with second opinions before I’ve formed the first, but Dorothy probably knows plenty about her neighbours!” said Gary. “We could rule out Jane and start a serious search for the reason that chorus was attacked in such a subtle way.”
Charlie and Lottie were going to school for hockey training although it was half term. They practiced three times a week all the year round. It kept things going, especially Miss Plimsoll, who had been teaching sport for decades and unfortunately hung on to her youthful enthusiasm, which was becoming an increasing pain to all who had anything to do with her on or off the hockey pitch. On the other hand, attending the practice was useful, since school reports invariably contained praise for attending things voluntarily and if you weren’t away on holiday, school-free days could become very boring.
Gary offered to take the girls to school so that Cleo could use the red car if she needed it.
“We’ll take the bus,” the girls had told him. “It’s too early anyway.”
“But it isn’t too early to get to HQ, as Gary had explained as he left Cleo to await Dorothy for that second breakfast.
Dorothy thought it would be nice to try some of her freshly baked bread, so she was in Cleo’s kitchen slicing warm currant loaf within a few minutes of Cleo’s phone-call.
“Have you seen Jane Barker lately, Dorothy?” Cleo asked.
“Only yesterday morning, but I used to see her more often in the old days when she came out into the garden to scream at Mr Barker.”
“Could Jane Barker have killed her husband?”
“Never,” said Dorothy. “Who would she have screamed at?”
The two sleuths carried the coffee and a plate of currant loaf wedges into the living room and sat at the table to enjoy the feast.
“I don’t think she liked him very much. She was always upset about all the things he got up to as a bored pensioner, but I’m sure she would not have done away with him, Cleo. She made quite a lot of pocket-money selling the vegetables Mr Barker grew in such quantities that they couldn’t possibly eat them all themselves. And let’s not forget those poor hens.”
“But what if she did do away with him?”
“What makes you ask that now, Cleo? You have never questioned Mr Barker’s death before.”
“A dozen or so Finch Nightingales are in Middlethumpton General suffering or even dying from dysentery or a tropical disease after tasting Jane’s home cooking,” said Cleo.
“So you do deduce from that that Jane gave Jim Barker a dose of something?”
“Isn’t it possible, Dorothy?”
“On reflection, I suppose it is, but it’s unlikely that she would do anything to those chorus ladies. She loved being part of that chorus. She’s a new woman now she has found a mission in life. Why would she spoil that?”
“She fed her ladies on soup, Dorothy, and you said it smelt funny, so we did not have any.”
There was a pause while Dorothy gasped.
“Oh dear, She offered me some of that soup yesterday morning and I refused.”
“What was in it, Dorothy?”
“That was the cream of mushroom she had made the previous day and served at the chorus rehearsal.”
The two sleuths looked at one another in horror.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Cleo?”
“I think we both probably had a narrow escape and you had two,” said Cleo.
“Toadstools, Cleo! Jim Barker could tell the difference, but I’m not sure that Jane could.”
“So if she had been collecting wild mushrooms…”
“… She might have collected a few poisonous ones.”
“I think Gary will have to send forensics to look at what’s in Mrs Barker’s kitchen,” said Cleo. “You still have a key of the house, don’t you?”
“Don’t go in yourself, will you?”
“I won’t investigate unless you tell me to, Cleo,” said Dorothy a little starchily.
“No need to be offended, Dorothy.”
“I’m not offended, just alarmed.”
“I wonder if Jane is in hospital,” said Cleo.
“I don’t know, but she may have eaten some soup for lunch if I saw her in the morning and she still had enough soup left to offer me some.”
“Since you haven’t seen her since yesterday morning, she might be unconscious or dead…”
“It beggars belief.”
“It does, doesn’t it, especially if she knew enough about toadstool poison to add a few to her husband’s soup.”
“But then she would know which are the poisonous mushrooms, Cleo. I think that disqualifies her from poisoning Jim.”
“Or she memorized what the poisonous mushrooms looked like and kept that knowledge to herself for future use.”
“I can’t believe that Jane was so devious,” said Dorothy.
“She was devious enough to smuggle Jim’s chloroformed hens out of the house,” said Cleo.
“We might be missing something, of course,” said Cleo to Gary over the phone after Dorothy had gone shopping. “It occurred to me that if it wasn’t an accident and Mrs Barker was not responsible for the poison, someone else must have laced the soup with it at the rehearsal.”
“Aren’t you jumping the guns, Cleo? Let’s wait until Chris has more information. As far as I know, the women arrived at the hospital in various stages of sickness, presumably according to how much soup they had swallowed and when, and the hospital would prefer to think that it is a tropical disease, though how they’d handle a pandemic or even an epidemic is a mystery to me.””
“I expect they contacted Chris yesterday as a matter of routine if something looks suspicious.”
“I’’ll get Greg to check on Mrs Barker. We need to know if the woman survived her cooking,” said Gary.
Grit appeared rather late to take PeggySue to the nursery. Roger appeared with her. He had received a text from Gary requesting a search warrant for the Fargo property.
“I thought Gary would still be here,” said Roger. “He’s early this morning.”
“He has a lot on his mind and I don’t think he wanted to share a second breakfast with Dorothy this morning.”
“That’s understandable, Cleo. Dorothy puts quite a lot of pressure on him without realizing it,” said Roger.
He told Cleo that he had given Gary the go-ahead with his search, though it was not strictly necessary to have a warrant as a Chief Inspector.
“What is Gary looking for?” Roger asked Cleo. “He seemed agitated, so didn’t press the matter.”
“Gary is looking for Dr Fargo and it was my idea,” Cleo said. “But Gary thought he would definitely need official permission from his Superintendent to get a corpse exhumed from a cemetery so I expect he’ll get back to you, Roger.”
“So you assume that Fargo will not be found in the garden,” said Roger. “That doesn’t explain the exhumation. I’ll phone him now.”
“I’m at Cleo’s, Gary. Have you been to the villa?”
“Not yet,” said Gary. “I think Cleo should be there and she’s busy till later. Have you heard about the chorus women?”
“On the lines of too many corpses spoil the broth,” Roger said, amused at his play on words. “But tell me about that villa, Gary.”
“Dr Fargo owns it, but seems to have disappeared, unless the young relatives were putting on an act the whole time.”
“I think Gary’s waiting for you, Cleo.”
“I can’t get to HQ till later. I need to talk to Dorothy about those chorus women. We don’t know if Jim Barker also ate poisoned soup so he’s the guy who might have to be exhumed. He and Jane lived next door to Dorothy. Jane Barker offered her some of the left-over soup yesterday morning and she fortunately refused, but we don’t know if Jane ate some of it later and is lying unconscious or dead. I hope someone can find out pretty soon.”
“I’d better get moving, hadn’t I?” said Roger.” I might be needed somewhere else.”
“Can you send a team to Jane Barker’s house, Gary?” Cleo asked when she phoned Gary. “Jim Barker is not buried in the garden, but forensics must search that kitchen!”
“Mrs Barker might not have poisoned her husband,” said Gary who was frankly sceptical when it came to Jane Barker, whom he thought was brainless if not headless. “I’m quite sure Jim Barker is not buried in the garden.”
“He might have eaten poison soup, our poor dead Mr Barker,” said Cleo. “Only an exhumation could prove that.”
“And his widow may have poisoned some of the Finch Nightingales, too,” said Gary.
Of course, Roger had a fair idea of what was going on. Gary should have fallen in love with a weak little woman, but he was saddled with a loving wife full of determination and ambition, whom he adored but was hardly able to keep up with. Cleo had never solved the rivalry problem that was stuck firmly in Gary’s head.
Having given up the idea of searching the villa that morning, Gary got in his car and drove home for lunch. He was surprised to see Roger at the cottage.
“I thought you were at HQ,” said Gary.
“I was, but I wanted to see Grit rather urgently.”
“The thing is that we’re planning to get married,” said Roger, jumping the guns with his announcement since he hadn’t actually proposed to Grit, but needing something to clear the air. His diplomacy was rewarded by an instant reaction from Grit.
Grit came in through the still open front door and was surprised to see Roger.
“I brought PeggySue home,” she explained. “The nursery phoned to say she had a raised temperature so she would be better off here. I hope she isn’t catching. All sorts of bugs are passed around at nurseries.”
“Don’t worry, Grit. I’ll get Dr Mitchell to look at her,” said Cleo, picking up the child. “She quite hot,” she said. “I’ll give her some lunch and put her to bed. Then I’ll call Dr Mitchell.”
“As I was saying,” said Roger, “we’re going to get married.”
“Are you, Mother? That is a surprise.”
“Soon,” she said, smiling at Roger. “We really wanted to get the date settled before telling you. Roger is rather impatient.”
“I think that’s the kettle calling the pot black, Mother, but you both have my blessing,” said Gary, his mood changing in an instant from petulance to approval. “We’ll give you away.”
“You and Joe?” Cleo asked, amused at the way Roger had saved the day. “Does Joe know?”
“Not yet,” said Grit. “I hardly knew myself.”
Roger moved to Grit.
“I’m asking you officially now, Grit.”
“And I’m now saying it’s good idea,” said Grit. “Much nicer than living in sin.”
“I don’t think our life together is sinful at all,” said Roger. “Life can’t get any nicer, in my view.”
“I could see it coming,” said Cleo, moving to embrace her mother-in-law and Roger in turn.
“It was waiting to happen,” said Gary, coping admirably with the idea that his boss was marrying his mother.
“Can you give me a lift to HQ, Gary?” said Roger. “Grit will collect me. We want to choose the rings.”
“Wow!” said Cleo.
“Yes, we do,” said Grit. Roger’s spontaneity was as welcome as it was practical. “Are you here later, Cleo?”
“Sure. I’m here all afternoon. I’ll have to show the new au pair around. Don’t forget to collect her from the station, Gary.”
“So it is a female,” said Gary.
“I’m not really sure,” said Cleo.
Cleo consulted her phone.
“The one thirty from London,” she said.
“I’ll get a pizza from Romano for lunch, then,” said Gary, seeing his siesta smashed by the strange figure of a home help prancing around on an afternoon when he needed to make the peace with Cleo after his recent fall from grace.
“I’ll join you,” said Roger.
“Why do you need the red car this morning, Cleo?” Gary asked.
“For one thing I want to be at the Fargo villa when the garden is searched, of course.”
“If we get round to it,” said Gary.
“We should try,” said Cleo.
“What’s the other thing?” Grit asked and was rewarded with a look from Cleo that told her everything.
Roger and Gary exchanged puzzled glances.
“You’d better phone Chris and ask him when he’s going there.”
“I had thought of that, actually,” said Cleo, not mentioning her other plan. “I’ll see you both at about eleven tomorrow if that’s OK.”
“I expect we’ll have our act together by then,” said Gary.
“And I’ll send the au pair out for a walk with Tommy and Teddy during our siesta time. If PeggySue is feeling better, she can stay at the nursery for an extra play session in the afternoon. The babies will sleep while we are resting and I’ll collect PeggySue at four.”
“That sounds like a good plan, Gary,” said Roger.
“It does, doesn’t it?” said Grit. “Trust Cleo to get it all straightened out.”
With those words Grit gave her son a kiss on the forehead, declared that all his women loved him however awkward he was. Roger followed Gary to the family van. By the time they reached HQ Gary had convinced Roger that if a serial killer was involved, it was time to catch up with him.
“Or her,” said Roger.
“Or both,” said Gary, remembering the Fargo pair.
Cleo opened the packaging and followed the test instructions, after which she looked in on PeggySue, who was fast asleep and looked less feverish, gave Max and Mathilda their cereal and she drank the coffee pot empty.
Grit came back from her own cottage. If Roger was not coming for lunch, she could keep Cleo company.
“It’s happened again,” said Cleo.
“Did you want it to?” she said, looking at the tell-tale test phial.
“We didn’t avoid it, Grit.”
“The logistics are horrendous,” said Grit. “But I’m delighted and happy for you both. We’ll have to reorganize the sleeping arrangements. I assume that Gary has no idea.”
“You saw that he was not in the right mood this morning.”
“I would have thought he was over his problem with private eyes by now,” said Grit. “I think he just wants you to himself.”
“The truth is that he hates it when Dorothy or I jump the guns on one of his cases.”
“It’s time he grew up,” said Grit “His first step-father was the same.”
“He wanted me to give up journalism. I couldn’t do that, so he had to go. I think he ended up in some backwater writing copy for a gardening paper, though he did not know one end of a spade from the other.”
“I never had to make that kind of choice, Grit. Gary is happy. He just has problems showing it sometimes.”
“He should find an occupation he actually enjoys,” said Grit. “He’s too sensitive to be a cop.”
“Roger was diplomatically saving the day with his proposal, don’t you?”
“I know you were waiting for it, Grit. I can just never understand why women wait to be asked in an age when we are supposed to be equal.”
“Tradition I suppose. We don’t really need the security of a marriage. There’s hardly going to be any offspring at our age.”
“These days that should not be a reason for getting married. Marriage used to be for procreation before the invention of birth control, which makes it ludicrous that any church could disapprove of life outside marriage or the marriage of couples too old or unable to have children, but it’s still the case. Gary and I don’t need the security either, but for the sake of our children it is a help in an age where prudery and bigotry are still rife.”
“That should all change,” said Grit. “It’s time all children had rights whatever their parentage. They did not ask to be born. They were often not even invited.”
“Or the result of something awful happening,” said Cleo.
“Those little ones resulting from violence and uncontrolled lust need us more than anyone.”
“Having my babies now makes up for losing my first one thanks to my violent first husband,” said Cleo. “Not that you can replace one baby through another.”
“I got Joe back, Cleo. Just imagine! After over forty years. He was my biggest wound and deepest grief. And now I have three men who care about me, three grandsons, four granddaughters and who knows what will be in the next delivery.”
The two women embraced for a long time. Cleo’s eyes were moist when she thanked Grit for caring.