The ward sister was visibly distressed by the visit of a police detective.
Gary’s morning had been stressful, not least because he had had to go to the hospital to ask questions about the two deceased women.
“If I had been on night duty it would not have happened,” she sniffed.
“I don’t see how you could have prevented the death of the heart patient if it was sudden,” said Gary, “but I’m really worried about the second woman. I was told that she had been smothered.”
“I didn’t tell anyone,” said the sister. “The person who told you could have been the night nurse. She was on duty until eight because night duty always includes washing the patients and getting them ready for the day.”
“So you came in for eight and were confronted with those two tragic events, were you?”
“Hadn’t the night nurse raised the alarm earlier? I thought those patients died during the night.”
“I don’t know when it happened,” said the sister. “I did not come into the ward until I came on duty.”
“But the woman who was smothered could not have smothered herself, Sister, so who came in and did it? Isn’t it customary and even necessary to keep a constant watch on seriously ill patients?”
“I said I wasn’t here,” said the sister, who was getting nervous and snapped at Gary. “If the night nurse was negligent she’ll have to answer for it.”
“I’m not blaming you, Sister. What is that night nurse’s name? I’ll talk to her. I expect you saw her when she was leaving.”
The nurse looked uncomfortable.
“Well not exactly. I was a bit late.”
“So the patients were left to their own devices, were they?”
“No. A helper was here.”
“What kind of a helper?”
“A junior nurse. I was only a few minutes late.”
Gary refrained from commenting that the hospital did not have a very clear idea of who should be responsible for patients if a beginner was allowed to supervise a ward.
“I see from your badge that you are Sister Amy,” he said and detected a slight shrinkage in the woman’s self-confidence. Was shirking responsibility part of being on the staff of that hospital? Had Nurse Amy told him untruths to get her own head out of a possible noose?
Sister Amy looked in the duty rota. Gary’s observation was accurate. She was now seriously worried. What if this policeman reported her late arrival?
“Mrs Crown was on night duty. She’s been here a long time.”
“Well, she’s close to retirement age and she was here when I came ten years ago. I was a junior nurse then, of course,” she said.
“Isn’t there an age limit for night duty nurses?”
“We are glad of any we can get,” said the sister.
“What is you surname?” said Gary.
“Goodman,” she said reluctantly.
“I’m not planning to put a nail in your coffin, Sister,” said Gary. What was the woman afraid of? She had not been on duty when the deaths occurred. Some past demeanour must be troubling her unless it was that she started work late.
“Do you make a habit of starting work late?” Gary asked.
The woman looked surprised.
“Only once or twice, Chief Inspector,” she said, flipping through the pages where incidents and visitors were recorded.
“There is no record here of anyone coming into this part of the hospital last night.”
“Someone must have got in and out again without being seen then,” said Gary.
“Or somehow the pillow suffocated the patient,” said Sister Amy.
“Do you really believe that?”
“It has happened before.”
“Really? You must tell me more about that. It probably means that such cases were not thought suspicious. Were the police ever called in?”
“No. We were not going to call in the police this time if nobody had spilt the beans.”
Gary thought the situation was rather sinister.
“But someone did. To me, Sister. Where are the bodies now?”
“Downstairs in the mortuary.”
“Can you take me to them?”
“I can’t leave the ward, but I’ll phone down and someone will collect you.”
“I’m sorry about all this,” said Amy Goodman, hoping to rescue some of her credibility.
“Not as sorry as those two in the mortuary.”
Gary hated the idea of inspecting the two dead women, but he knew it was expected of him. He wished he was at home having his second breakfast, but he would have to go through with the ordeal of visiting the dead before he could leave. He would take photos of the corpses and pass them on to Cleo. She would probably know if they had been Finch Nightingales.
Meanwhile it was clear that both dead women would have to be subjected to police autopsies. Gary notified Chris from the hospital and instructed the male nurse on duty in the mortuary that a police inquiry was unavoidable and that the post mortems would be performed in the pathology lab at HQ, to which end the corpses were to be sent there as soon as possible.
The death certificates had been issued by a young hospital doctor in his first week at the hospital. He had not even been aware of the poisoning event. The certificates were inadequate given that the women had been admitted to hospital for food poisoning or even, as at first suspected, some tropical disease or other. Everyone dies of heart failure, but people don’t usually smother themselves, so at least one death was suspicious. The idea that a patient could smother herself was too far-fetched, and the death of the second woman looked like heart-failure, but may not have been. Gary speculated on whether the heart failure woman had been in the chorus as it would substantiate the idea that someone was intent on wiping out the chorus.
Away from the macabre chill and stench of that mortuary, Gary stood outside for some time breathing in the fresh October air. He phoned Cleo to describe his hospital visit and send her the photos he had taken of the two corpses. Chris’s autopsies would deliver the exact causes of death. It was not a question of hospital negligence except that it appeared that someone had crept in unnoticed and killed one or both of the women.
Whatever the outcome, the hospital security issue would have to be raised. The wellbeing of patients could hardly be guaranteed if there was such under-staffing that someone could get in and out of the ward without being seen.
“At least Jane Barker is still alive,” Cleo commented. “I don’t suppose you got to see her, did you?”
“I’ll go back when things have normalized,” Gary said, not confessing that he had not given a thought to Jane Barker, so thankful had he been to get out of the hospital. “The ward sister I talked to was not on duty when it happened and I suspect that the night nurse, a woman close to retirement age and probably unwell, was asleep when the women died. It is also common practice for night nurses to rest when everything is quiet. Someone must have got into the ward and smothered the younger of those two women. Do you recognize her, Cleo?”
“Yes. She was new when Laura took the chorus. The woman is one of the Norton clan, I think.”
“She is. I think I read the first name Eileen. There’ll be ructions when the Norton brothers hear that one of their relatives has been murdered.”
“What about the other woman? I don’t recognize her,” said Cleo.
“Brenda Simpson. Does that name ring a bell?”
“No. She might be one of the visitors to that open evening when Miss Keys tried to find new talent. What do you think the Nortons will do?””
“I’ll have to get some of them – notably those corrupt brothers - into HQ before they turn up somewhere uninvited.”
“I hope it’s not too late, Gary. Eileen Norton’s murder might retribution for something they did, They will not come to you unless it’s to make trouble and they may even know who killed their relative.”
“How could they find out about the death so fast, Cleo?”
“Anonymously, like you did. Maybe by the same person. It sounds like you have fun investigating ahead of you, Gary.”
“Perish the thought! I’d better get a move on then. My main concern is what happens when gangsters come up against other gangsters. It usually turns nasty.”
“That probably means that if they know the killer, they will take the law into their own hands,” said Cleo.
“That’s all I need.”
“You’d better be careful, Sweetheart. I don’t want them turning nasty on you for want of a better victim.”
“I’m sure that plenty want to get their own back on the Nortons and that may be the first of several sacrificial lambs. Are you OK? I can’t get that second breakfast this morning. I’m running late as it is.”
“At least you spent some time with the kids.”
“Not enough. It’s never enough.”
“Don’t stay out all day,” said Cleo. “We need you here.”
“I need my beautiful family, especially after a dose of a sobbing ward sister and corpses in mortuaries, not to mention the prospect of angy Norotns turning up at HQ.””
Dorothy was true to her word. She phoned the Crightons, whose phone number she had fortunately noted because she had had doubts about their son’s guilt at the time of Laura’s Finch’s murder. Up to now, she had seldom been able to express her feelings on the matter not least because Gary was sure that Laura’s murder had been solved satisfactorily.
Dorothy was relieved that she would at last talk be able to the Crightons. She wanted to clear Betjeman’s name of Laura’s murder now she was sure that Barbarella Knowles had had both motive and opportunity to kill her. Despite the fact that Betjeman had been rude to her and guilty of despicable behaviour, she was determined to right the wrong she was sure had been done even knowing that Gary would not have approved of her real motive for visiting the Crightons.
Being found guilty of a murder the young man had not committed went against all principles of justice. Added to that was Dorothy’s conviction that Jason Finch had not been killed by Betjeman, either. The girl Jessica had hated and feared her brother – if he was her brother – for what he had done to her sister Rebecca, Dorothy thought. It was a terribly complicated case altogether and Dorothy wanted to get at the truth about Betjeman’s involvement in the most horrendous crimes to occur in Upper Grumpsfield for decades. The interview with the Crightons might bring her a step further and might even lead to the real killer or killers being brought to justice.
Mr Crighton was delighted to hear from Dorothy and looked forward to her visit. Betjeman was in a prison near Oxford and the Crightons had moved to the vicinity to be near him. Dorothy could catch a train to Oxford and Mr Crighton would meet her there at four that very afternoon. The sooner the better, Dorothy told Cleo when she reported her arrangement.
“You know what you need to find out, don’t you, Dorothy?”
“Yes, but I’ll have to improvise. I’ll get them to talk to me before I say much if I can. Have you got any suggestion for me, Cleo?”
“I’d quite like to know if Miss Knowles has been anywhere near them.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that, but you are right.”
“If Miss Knowles is as guilty as we think she might be, it’s possible that she went there since she must have known that Betjeman Crighton had confessed to a murder she had committed.”
“Seen in that light, it gets quite intriguing, Cleo. Knowles may have visited them to make quite sure that Betjeman was sticking to his story.”
“If she did, the Crightons would not have guessed her real reason for going there,” said Cleo. “She will have told them that she was his friend and wanted to express her sympathy.”
“I’ll get moving. I’ll have plenty to think about on the train this afternoon.”
“Phone me when you get back, however late it is. I’m curious!”
“So am I.”
“Bon voyage, Dorothy, and don’t tell the Crightons more than they need to know!”
The first thing Gary did when he got to HQ was to ring Chris Marlow to notify him that the two dead women named Norton and Goodman would be brought in soon for the autopsies. He was less worried about that than the knowledge that a woman nearing retirement age and possibly not fit to be on night duty should have been in charge of a whole ward. He confided that worry to Chris.
“I went to the hospital, Chris. Someone saying she was a ward sister had rung me about the women dying, but it was not the ward sister I met. Sister Amy was adamant that the police were not usually called in when someone died and she was not on duty when the phone call came into the cottage. So I have no idea who the informer was. Presumably the Norton brothers were also informed anonymously since it was one of that clan who was smothered.
“To be honest, it’s all improvised at that place, Gary. The fatter the management team gets, the less management there seems to be.”
“Are you not normally notified about deaths?”
“Not by nurses, Gary. A doctor might call me in if he suspects something. In this case the first I heard about it was when the corpses were delivered.”
“The sister I saw this morning was adamant about not being on duty during the night.”
“So the caller, whoever it was, had a guilty conscience,” said Chris, “especially if she did not give her name. It was a woman, wasn’t it?”
“Yes and I agree with you,” said Gary.
"Are you sure the caller was not looking for Cleo?"
"I answered the phone because I was nearer. I've no idea. Cleo was not mentioned."
"Talk to the nurse who was on duty. She probably made the call – she couldl have panicked."
“I’ll have to find her first. The nurse I talked to said that they did not like to call the police in. “I‘d also like to know h the caller had our private phone number.”
“It’s on Cleo’s card, Gary.”
“So it is.”
“So it’s strange that the caller did not ask to speak to her.”
“It is. The Sister I spoke to said they’d had more than one incident of patients being smothered. She said they did it themselves so the police were not called in. I found that really shocking.”
“Typical. I wonder how many of the dead slip through the net at that hospital,” said Chris. “I mean the sudden, unexpected deaths, of course: the ones that should have been reported.”
“The caller whoever it was had first-hand knowledge. It must have been the nurse who was on night duty. She was evidently so unnerved that she phoned the cottage. But why did she not ask for Cleo?”
"I expect she was in such a state that she was ready to talk to anyone who would listen. She was going against house rules telling anyone."
“One of the two women was smothered, Chris. You don’t suppose that nurse could have done it, do you?”
“Not unless it was euthanasia.”
“That’s what Cleo would say. Do you think it’s possible to smother oneself? The ward sister said it had been known to happen.”
“I’ve never heard of that happening. Someone must have helped things along.”
“I think so, too. Let me know your findings a.s.a.p, please.”
“Does that mean another weekend in the lab, or will Monday do?”
"I'll leave that decision to you," said Gary knowing that Chris would never leave work undone. “I’d better track down that nurse today in case she decides to do a bunk or even take her own life.”
“I’ll take a close look at those corpses.”
A phone call to the hospital in an official capacity revealed the address of Kate Crown. Gary decided to go there himself immediately. He did not want her forewarned. An interview with the Norton brothers could wait, though they had already been brought in. He needed to know what had really happened at the hospital, not least so that he was armed against the inevitable reactions of the Norton brothers. Gary organized a colleague, Mia Curlew, to accompany him. Working in twos was common practice and advisable. On the drive he told her what it was all about. Mia was sure they were going to have an informative visit.
"That could depend on how guilty our Mrs Crown is," said Gary.
“I won’t butt in unless you ask me to.”
“Do what you think fit, Mia. I don’t like interviewing hysterical women.”
Kate Crown lived in a very small semi on the edge of Middlethumpton, right next to a bus stop. Gary felt a bit mean since Mrs Crown was probably in bed asleep after working all night.
A small, wizened man opened the door.
“Yes?” he said.
Gary showed the man his ID badge. The man jerked and looked alarmed.
“Chief Inspector Hurley, Mr Crown. And this is Sergeant Curlew.”
“Police? Where’s your uniform?”
“Plain clothes division, Mr Crown,” said Gary."
“I’m not Mr Crown,” said the man.
“So who am I speaking to? Mrs Crown lives here, doesn’t she?”
“Yes. She’s my sister. I’m John Smith. I came to live here after Mr Crown passed on.”
Mia was amused by the thought that there were actually men named John Smith.
“I’m sorry about Mrs Crown’s loss, Mr Smith.”
“I’m not and neither is Kate. Mr Crown ever did us a favour by dying and leaving Kate this house.”
Gary decided that continuing the dialogue on the doorstep was not going to get them anywhere. Mr Smith’s resentment was typical of someone who complained about something, but was happy to use any perks he could get out of it.
“We’d like to speak to your sister, Mr Crown,” said Mia.
“She’s asleep,” said Smith raising his voice. Gary responded by raising his.
“It can’t be helped. Ask us in and we’ll wait while you get her up.”
“She’s on nights.”
“Get her up, please.”
Gary and Mia were shown into the parlour.
Kate Crown had heard her brother’s raised voice telling Gary repeatedly that his sister would be cross if she didn’t get her rest. She emerged from her bedroom wearing a flannel nightie. She looked as if she had been torn out of a deep sleep.
“What do you want?” she said, squinting at Gary and Mia. “I’m not dressed.”
“We have to talk, Mrs Crown,” said Mia. “Shall I get you a bathrobe?”
“I ‘aven’t got one.”
The woman folded her arms across her chest.
“I’ll get you my dressing-gown, Kate.”
“It won’t fit me,” snapped Mrs Crown, who had at least twice the girth of her brother. “Get us some tea, will you Alfred?”
Alfred dutifully disappeared into the kitchen.
“I don’t want him bothered,” she said in a low voice. “He’s not well, you see.”
“He told us his name is John,” said Mia.
“That’s because you #re police. He doesn’t like the police.”
"That's not an excuse for giving a false name," said Mia.
"His name is Alfred John Smith, Miss. What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing at all," said Mia, anxious not to upset their chances of hearing anything worth hearing from the woman.
“We are here to see you, Mrs Crown, not your brother,” said Gary. ”We won’t keep you up long.”
"Good. I want to go back to bed," she said. "I'm on night duty."
“Tell us about last night, Mrs Crown,” Mia said, pulling the woman gently onto the sofa and taking her hands.
Gary nodded approvingly. Mia was having a calming effect. Kate’s Crown’s facial impression relaxed.
“I was asleep,” she said. “Nothing happens at night and I can’t run around as much these days.”
“Then you should give up night work, Mrs Crown,” said Mia.
“I can’t afford to. My brother needs the pills they have at the hospital. My brother has H.I.V. and a bit of AIDS, you see.”
“That’s why he looks so old. He isn’t much older than me.”
Considering that Mrs Crown looked ancient though she can’t have been in more than her late fifties, Mia thought that was a bit rich, but she would deal with the woman as Cleo would have, except that Cleo’s more exotic appearance was sometimes overwhelming, which was why she was so glad in her turn to have Dorothy’s support.
Kate Crown was not much younger than Grit, Gary’s mother, but they were like chalk and cheese. Where Grit was stylishly dressed and had a big personality, this ageing night nurse looked broken and pathetic. She was stout and walked with difficulty in her ancient carpet slippers. Where Grit dressed in matching satin nightie and negligée, Mrs Crown wore an old-fashioned floral nightie and had pulled a hairnet over her curlers. Worry furrows crossed her brow. She had reddened eyes and a quavering voice. Her hands twitched nervously.
Gary and Mia exchanged glances. They felt sorry for her, but they had there to find out what she knew about the two premature deaths.
“If you were asleep, you did not see anyone come into the ward, did you?” said Mia.
Mrs Crown shook her head.
“Or perhaps you did see someone but do not want to say who it was over the phone, Mrs Crown,” said Gary and Mia thought he was being premature with such an assumption.
“It was you I talked to, wasn’t it, Mrs Crown?”
Mrs Crown’s gaze shifted from one side to the other to avoid looking directly at the questioner. It was common practice. Most people know that you can read a lot from the way people use their eyes.
“Did you get paid to take that nap last night, Mrs Crown?” said Gary, adopting a severe tone of voice.
Mrs Crown gripped Mia’s hands. The gesture was like an admission.
Gary’s shot in the dark had paid off. Mia was annoyed by what she felt was unnecessary severity. Cleo would have been proud of him.
The woman nodded fearfully.
“I don’t know who it was,” she said, “but forty pounds is a lot of money.”
“Where is the money now?” Gary asked.
“It’s in the tea-caddy. It’ll pay for …”
“The weekend shopping, Sir,” said the woman.
“Not your brother’s pills?”
“I get them from friends,” she lied.
“Did you see the person who gave you the money?”
Mrs Crown shook her head.
“She came from behind.”
“She?” said Mia.
“She was wearing some kind of scent. Sickly like. Smelt like geraniums.”
“And you don’t know what happened next, do you?” said Mia.
Mrs Crown shook her head again.
“I drank something. I remember that.”
“What did you drink?”
“V…Vodka - with water.”
“Do you always drink vodka when you are on duty?” said Gary.
“I only have a nip or two when I want a rest,” said Mrs Crown. “It relaxes me and I have to swallow my pills.”
“Aspirin,” said Mrs Crown.
Gary thought the unidentified visitor might have dropped something into the glass. KO drops were tasteless and colourless and quickly poured out. The lights were possibly very dim in the nurse’s room if the woman had gone there for a nap. If there was water and vodka in the glass, Mrs Crown might have drunk it ex. He reflected that Mrs Crown was lucky to be alive. She would not have tasted anything amiss with her drink and she had been drinking before that stranger turned up so that a sleeping drug of any kind would have worked faster.
“So you really did go to sleep and only woke up when it got light,” said Gary.
“I had taken my headache pills,” she said.
“That might have made you sleep longer,” said Gary. A cocktail of sleeping pill, vodka and KO drops would certainly have knocked her out for hours. “Would you recognize the person who gave you the money, Mrs Crown?”
“I think so. I’m n…not sure. It was dark. P…probably not. I… I…”
Panic had overcome Mrs Crown.
“I don’t want the money,” said Gary. “It’s yours, Mrs Crown.”
“Did you wake up and hurry into the ward only to find two women dead?” said Mia.
Gary walked to the window and looked out to give Mrs Crown time to regain some kind of composure.
“Someone screamed,” said the nurse. “That’s what woke me up. A patient screamed that there was a body on the floor.”
“Was that the body of the woman who had died of heart failure?” said Gary.
“What about the other dead woman, Mrs Crown?” Mia asked.
“In bed. She had a pillow over her face.”
“Did you remove it?”
“I looked at the patient and then put it back.”
Gary could hardly believe what he was hearing. Did Mrs Crown think that was the way to deal with the dead? But at least it made it unlikely that she herself had smothered Eileen Norton. She would hardly have replaced the pillow if she had wanted to cover up a murder she had committed. Had she already connected the smothered woman with the stranger who had been and gone? Gary mused that the ward sister had intimated that patients had been smothered before. The police were never informed of those incidents. He wondered what other secrets the hospital cherished.
“What did you do then?” Mia asked.
“I drew curtains round the two beds, told the other patients not to worry and asked them what they wanted for breakfast. Most of the patients had fortunately recovered and been moved or gone home, so there were only three patients left for me to wash, not counting the dead ones.”
“Are you sure that you don’t know who gave you the money to take that nap, Mrs Crown?” Gary said.
Mia got up and went to stand next to Gary, who had moved from the window. The two cops were now facing Mrs Crown..
“I’m quite sure,” said Mrs Crown, shrinking a bit further into herself.
Mia signalled to Gary to let her deal with Mrs Crown before sitting down again next to her. Two cops standing over her would be threatening, she whispered.
Gary moved away.
Mia lowered her voice.
“Who visited the patients during the day yesterday?” she asked.
Gary wondered how Mrs Crown would react. She was not officially at the hospital during the day.
“I only know from the register because I was at home all day, Miss. The heart patient was too poorly to get visitors. Miss Norton had a visitor in the afternoon. That’s all I remember from the register.”
“So you only came in for night duty, I expect,” said Mia.
“Yes. One of the other patients told me about some visitors when I came on duty. She was upset because no one had been to see her.”
“Did she know the names of any of the visitors?” Gary asked.
“No. But the patient said one was a friend from Miss Norton's choir.”
That god-damn chorus again, mused Gary.
“Did the patient know her name?”
“I think it was Barbie or something like that. The other patient who saw her said she was a large lady – like a prize fighter – and she smelt funny.”
That must have been Knowles, Gary decided.
“I have only one more question, Mrs Crown,” he said. “Think carefully before you answer.”
“Is it true that you phoned people to tell us them about the dead women?”
Mrs Crown hesitated before admitting that she had wanted to speak to Miss Hartley, but a man had answered the phone.
“That was me. Miss Hartley and I live together,” said Gary. “Why did you want to speak to my wife?”
“I thought she could help me.”
“But you didn’t ask for her,” said Gary.
“I was surprised that a man answered,” said Mrs Crown.
“Surely you don’t think Miss Hartley has no private life,” said Gary and earned himself a stern look from Mia.
“How did you want Miss Hartley to help you?” Mia wanted to know.
Mrs Crown hesitated again – a moment too long for Mia’s liking.
“Tell us, Mrs Crown. I can see that you are troubled,” Mia said in a coaxing voice.
“I meant to ask her about my brother’s pills, Miss.”
“What about the pills?” Mia said.
“I get them from the pharmacy, Miss.”
“But you pay for them, don’t you?”
It occurred to Gary that someone was selling pills for his own profit, but he did not pursue that line for the moment. Pill-trading was not a new offence. He would pursue the case later. He would have to, now that HQ had no drugs department. It was, however, Mia’s chance to get a foot in that door as a detective.
”I had a phone-call,” Mrs Crown said.
“Who phoned you?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did the caller want?”
“They told me to keep the pills deal to myself,” said Mrs Crown.
“Was it a man, Mrs Crown?” said Gary.
“It was all muffled – it gave me the creeps,” said Mrs Crown. “I pay for those pills. I don’t steal them.”
"But someone probably does, Mrs Crown,” said Mia.
“Did you take that phone-call as a personal warning, Mrs Crown?" said Gary.
"The hospital tells us not to call in the police. They make such a fuss."
“What has that got to do with you being warned?” said Mia.
“It could have been the hospital if they had found out what was going on, couldn’t it?” said Gary,
Mrs Crown looked fearful.
“All the more reason not to call a private detective, Mrs Crown,” said Mia, realizing that something was going on that frightened Mrs Crown more than the deaths of the two women.
“I waited till I was at home so as not to be caught on the telephone.”
Gary gestured to Mia that they should leave. He did not think they would get anything more out of Mrs Crown at present and he wanted to talk to Chris about that pill-trading before asking Mrs Crown any questions about who was selling her the pills.
Mia and Gary went towards the front door. Gary turned to the woman and said
“Just to recap, you slept for a long time, didn't you, Mrs Crown?”
“From about two o’clock. I did a round before that. The patients were all asleep in bed.”
It was really appalling. A stranger gets as far as the intensive ward and gets the nurse to take a break by giving her a knock-out drug. It was to all intents and purposes attempted murder.
“I have a favour to ask you, Mrs Crown,” said Gary.
Mrs Crown was clearly relieved that the interview was over.
“I want you to show me those AIDS pills, Mrs Crown.”
“I’ll get them,” she said.
“I’ll go with you, Mrs Crown,” said Mia.
As Gary expected, the pills were in a plain white box. Gary made a show of looking at it, extracting a couple of the pills without Mrs Crown’s knowledge.
“They look all right to me, Mrs Crown. Who sells them to you?”
“I get them when I come on duty, Sir. From a doctor in a white coat.”
“Are they helping your brother, Mrs Crown?”
“They’re keeping him alive, Sir.”
It was mid-afternoon before Gary got away from HQ. He and Mia had discussed the interview with Mrs Crown. Mia would write a report, but not publish it just yet.
Gary tried to find out more about Kate Crown’s past, but drew a blank. She had probably got things wrong in the past, but there was nothing in national police records. Gary decided that Cleo should take a look at her before he came to any conclusions. To that end he had spoken to Chris and acquired the equipment necessary for a small blood sample to be obtained from Mrs Crown that day.
Gary was gasping for a coffee by the time he got home. He looked exhausted, but Cleo had the sense not to say so. She thought the blood test was a good idea. Any residue of a sleep-inducing drug would probably still be in the blood and would verify the woman’s story as well as opening up the possibility that something strong had been put into her glass.
When the children had been organized with Grit and Toni, Cleo and Gary drove to Middlethumpton General. During the drive Gary briefed Cleo about his previous meeting with Mrs Crown. Cleo thought Mia had been the right person to go with him. She did not say so, but they both knew that however informal a chat was, it was better not to go alone. It was too easy for men to get into difficulties if they were accused indecency. That had happened often enough, though fortunately not to Gary.
They arrived at Mrs Crown’s house at about four. She was now up and about, but she did not look well and her brother wanted her to stay at home.
Kate Crown did not agree.
“They can’t do without me,” she said.
“In the state you’re in, you should be in one of those hospital beds, not running around others,” said her brother.
Alfred John Smith was surprised to see the Inspector again, and even more surprised when Gary introduced Cleo as his personal assistant. They were led into a poky back room filled with a dining table and chairs for eight and overlooking a back garden that needed attention. Mrs Crown resumed her eating. Gary came straight to the point.
“I need a blood sample, Mrs Crown,” he said.
Mrs Crown looked up from the dubious-looking stew she was eating.
“What for? I haven’t done anything,” she said.
“I didn’t think you had, Mrs Crown,” said Gary, “but we need to test for that sleeping drug. Then we can use the result as proof that you had nothing to do with the deaths of those patients.”
“You’d like that to happen, wouldn’t you, Mrs Crown?” Cleo added.
Mrs Crown nodded assent.
“Get a clean syringe, Alfred,” she commanded.
Alfred John Smith went to fetch one from the medicine drawer.
“No need, Mr Smith. I brought everything with me,” said Gary to his receding figure. “I won’t need a lot of blood, Mrs Crown. Just enough to test for that drug.”
With the nurse’s own assistance, which he didn’t need but got anyway, the required amount of blood was drawn out of a vein and a plaster stuck on the place where the needle had entered.
“You did that well, Inspector,” said Mrs Crown.
“We learn how to do that in our police training.”
“Have you ever delivered a baby, Inspector?” she said, now using a conciliatory tone.
“No, but I have witnessed a couple.”
“We have two sets of twins, Mrs Crown,” said Cleo, “and my partner did not faint once, did you, Sweetheart?” she added, looking at Gary.
That amused Mrs Crown.
“Is the inspector your husband?” she asked.
“How did you guess?” said Gary for want of something to add.
“I know a pair of lovers when I see them,” she replied. “You get an eye for them when you’re in my job. They come with flowers and some try to get into bed with the patient. I knew you and that lady cop were not on intimate terms. And now I can see why.”
“But lovers aren’t always married to one another, Mrs Crown,” said Cleo. “I wasn’t married when my husband and I became lovers, but not in a hospital bed.”
“I was still married,” said Gary, joining in with the slightly bawdy dialogue that seemed to lift Mrs Crown’s spirits, “and my ex-wife was carrying on with some Spanish jerk or other.”
“And I married someone else before I realized that this guy was going to hang on to me forever.”
The atmosphere I the room was now almost pally.
“Are you a midwife, Mrs Crown?” Gary said. He was ready to move on after the queasy feeling that had come over him when he saw Mrs Crown’s blood. He thought of the midwife who had sold his twin brother to the highest bidder 42 years previously; then there had been that dreadful case of the midwife in Upper Grumpsfield who sold babies stolen at birth pretty much in the same pattern as that of his brother; and now there was this old woman, laughing at the earthy chit-chat, her dead patients forgotten.
“I was married,” she replied with pursed lips, all signs of merriment gone in a flash.
“What happened?” Cleo asked. She had had the same thoughts as Gary and now looked at Mrs Crown closely.
“He wore his socks in bed,” she said, laughing merrily at the memory. He died with them on. He always left his socks on even if we …”
“I’ll let you into a secret, Mrs Crown,” said Cleo. “I would not let my husband into my bed with his socks on.”
Gary wished he was somewhere else since Mrs Crown was looking at him with the eyes of a connoisseur. Nurses saw naked men frequently. Gary was embarrassed at the thought.
“He warms them on his duvet now,” Cleo continued, smiling broadly at Gary.
Relaxed from the chi-chat, Mrs Crown related the gruelling details of her final messy midwifery assignments and how she had been allowed to choose night duty or an early, very meagre pension. She had chosen nights because of the money, justifying the easier access to drugs for her brother’s AIDS. Her face clouded over as she talked about her sudden widowhood and now there were these two deaths while she was on duty; deaths that could mess up her life and bring her brother’s to a premature end.
Then to everyone’s surprise Kate Crown started to howl. She did not sob quietly into the floral overall she wore at home, but let loose a series of wails that would have done a professional mourner proud.
Gary went back to looking out of the window.
Cleo tried to comfort Mrs Crown.
“I’m going to ring the hospital and say you are sick,” she said.
“They won’t believe you. They’ll say I’m chickening out.”
“They’ll believe me when I tell them I’m calling from your doctor.”
Alfred had come into the room quietly and wondered about his sister’s temporary merriment. He nodded his approval to Cleo’s proposal.
Cleo went into the hall to phone the hospital and returned with the instruction that Mrs Crown was to take time off until she felt better.
“They just want to get rid of me,” she said.
“They can’t do that, Mrs Crown. Not while you are ill,” said Gary. “But you can do me a little favour.”
“One hand washes the other, Inspector.”
“Can you attend an identity parade sometime soon?”
“I suppose so,” said Mrs Crown. “But you’ll have to tell me what to do.”
“I’ll get my colleague to help you. You liked her, didn’t you?”
Gary brought the meeting to a close as soon as he could. He was cheered by the prospect of getting Mrs Crown to attend an identification parade. He and Cleo drove to HQ where he delivered the blood sample personally to Chris for analysis.
“How long will it take?”
“Not long. I know what I’m looking for,” said Chris. “If I find it, I’ll just get the DNA registered and that’s all for now. If there is no foreign substance in the blood you may have a problem with the woman’s innocence.”
“I already have a problem,” said Gary. “Mrs Crown has no witnesses to what went on.”
Cleo had waited in the car to make a few phone-calls in cases not connected with HQ. She also phoned home to check that everything was OK. Gary wasted no time at HQ and was thoughtful on the way to Upper Grumpsfield. He was not surprised when Cleo cut across his musings with some of her own.
“Mrs Crown could have been telling lies the whole time, couldn’t she? Someone who buys drugs that have clearly been stolen is capable of that and other misdeeds.”
“Since she had lived in that house for some years, the nasty experiences she talked about probably happened at Middlethumpton General,” said Gary. “I’ll make enquiries. Someone might remember something.”
“I’d hate her to be on the level of that terrible woman we investigated in that stolen baby case,” said Cleo, “though she is rather awful, isn’t she?”
“To be honest, I don’t think Mrs Crown has the brains for advanced criminal actions, Cleo.”
“You’d be surprised what seemingly simply structured people can do if they are driven to it.”
“I’m not really surprised by anything – except what you do to me, my love.”
“I won’t ask you to explain that.”
“I’m not sure I could.”
A message was waiting for Gary when they reached the cottage. It was from Nigel, telling him that the Fargos had turned up at the villa.
“So they are back. They probably think there’s no danger now,” said Gary.
“How did Nigel find out?” said Cleo.
“There’s a private eye living opposite, Cleo. He’s been touting for work at HQ and got a break in the form of observing the Fargo villa.”
“I don’t know about him.”
“Did you want to observe the villa, Cleo, or send Dorothy?”
“Of course not, but you never mentioned the guy.”
“It’s a guy called Stan Butterworth. He’s staying with a relation after running away from his marriage. Nigel interviewed him and told him we’d call on him if the need arose. It’s an absolute deus-ex-machina for us.”
“It sure is a stroke of luck. So he’s been watching out for those relatives of the old doctor.”
“And now he’s keeping an eye on them. If they go away he’ll follow them, but it won’t come to that. Nigel will have gone to Greg for advice by now. I’ll just phone and make sure.”
“I’m surprised they did not call you out at HQ. You’ve just been there.”
“Nigel may not have told them where I was going at the information desk and I did not go to the office. I did not want to keep you waiting any longer than necessary.”
“So it’s my fault that you didn’t find out earlier, is it?”
“Don’t be daft, Cleo. I’m not the only one at HQ. It’s time someone else did something.”
“That’s not fair, Gary. I expect all your colleagues were busy.”
“All’s fair in war and love. I’ll phone Nigel back to see what he’s done. We’ll see to all the kids and have an early night, OK?”
“Where ARE all the kids?”
“At my mother’s, I should think. She has to be at home now and again and they like being there.”
“Maybe you should see to the Fargos, Gary. I’ll take care of the family and you really need to get some crimes solved.”
“Bang goes the family evening,” said Gary.
Nigel reported that Greg had brought the Fargos in for questioning. Gary left at high speed in the red car, negotiating the end- of-rush-hour traffic as he prepared himself mentally for a nasty few minutes ascertaining if and how Dr Fargo had met his death.
If they were innocent, why had traces of the doctors clothing been found in the cellar freezer?
Cleo took a moment to think about the afternoon’s scene at the old nurse’s house. There was something wrong with it all. Talking to Dorothy would help solve the puzzle. Dorothy was into straight talking and usually spotted any contradictions. But Dorothy was not at home. Her detecting had taken her to the Crightons.