Chapter 2 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall
Detective-Constable Dermot Craddock climbed out of the car and adjusted the set of his tweeds. He reflected, not without irony, that having spent several years and considerable effort to get out of uniform he felt oddly naked walking up to the front door of Larch Hill in plain clothes.
That unease vanished the instant the maid showed him into the drawing room. The perfect proportions of this room would have made any uniform sit awry.
“Good to see you, Craddock. Glad your DCI could spare you.” The Superintendent glanced up from the piles of papers on the Queen Anne card-table. “More your sort of set-up than mine, this.”
His gesture encompassed the hand-painted Regency wallpaper, the small but genuine Watteau and the Chinese porcelain bowl on the window-ledge.
Habituation checked Dermot’s impulse to swear. This sort of thing had been happening ever since he’d joined the Force. It would doubtless continue until he retired with silver hair and a gold carriage clock, if any of them survived that long. Annoying but inevitable, given his accent and family connections.
“Are the family being difficult, sir?”
The bay window framed a view of the park stretching out to meet a curve of wooded hills: Larch Hill land as far as the eye could see. A family with that much influence could make life hell for the local police. No wonder the Superintendent looked ill-at-ease.
“Difficult? Well, not in the usual way.”
Dermot raised his eyebrows, but the Superintendent made a tamping-down motion with both his square-tipped, broad hands.
“No. Don’t want to prejudice you. But you’ll meet the son — Julian Fleming — pretty soon. Ten bob says you’ll see what I mean then.”
Dermot nodded as if he understood. “And the rest of the family, sir?”
“Deceased was one of four children. A younger brother — he went at Ypres — and two much older sisters. Mrs Lamington, the eldest, came down from North Yorkshire last night. She’s having breakfast in her room, since she didn’t get in until late last night. There’s not likely to be much she can give us. She’s a recent widow — oh, nothing funny, he was a retired professor with a long-standing heart weakness. Two grown up children. Last time any of them saw the deceased was at the funeral, a few weeks ago. Since then Mrs Lamington’s been tied up sorting out her late husband’s estate.”
“And the other sister, sir?” Dermot asked.
“Still trying to get in touch. One of those arty ladies, I gather. Shares a decrepit villa in Fiesole with a ‘dear friend’ from Cheltenham Ladies College and throws lurid pottery. Barring Christmas cards, I don’t suppose she’s had any contact with the deceased in ten years, at least, if the son’s to be believed.” The Superintendent’s tone gave no clue as to his opinion on the latter point.
“Not the most promising candidate for a murderer, then. That is — ” Dermot drew a deep breath, aware he was treading on delicate ground. “Can you explain, sir, how the suspicion of murder came about? I’m afraid the phone call wasn’t long enough to give me more than the outline.”
The Superintendent extracted an envelope from the pile on the desk and handed it to Dermot with an air of expectation.
Dermot turned it over in his hand. Addressed to a Harley Street consultant in a firm yet lady-like hand. Deep blue ink. Water-marked rag paper, the best quality, rich cream in colour. The first-class stamp had not been franked, although the envelope had been slit open with a letter-knife.
He raised it to his nostrils and inhaled the faintest breath of Je Reviens. Only then did he put finger and thumb inside the envelope and extract the two sheets of writing paper enclosed. They were closely written, on both sides; it took him some minutes to read them through. Once he had done so, he raised his eyes to meet the Superintendent’s quizzical gaze.
“You see what I mean, Craddock? Not a letter from someone with any intention of committing suicide.”
“Indeed not, sir. A lady doing a great deal of very energetic planning for the future. I take it her son didn’t know she’d written this?”
The Superintendent shook his head. “Obviously, if he had, it would have given him a pretty big motive to kill her. So, when we finally managed to track him down yesterday — he’d gone up to Oxford to see some old college friends — we called him into the station and sprang the letter on him, to see how he’d react.”
His tone changed, became deep, slow and thoughtful. “You know, Craddock, you think you’ve seen everything in this job. It’s not even the first time I’ve had to tell someone that their nearest and dearest had been looking to have them locked away in a looney bin. But either he’s the best actor ever born or it was a bolt that came completely out of the blue. I can see his face still. He was trying to keep a stiff upper lip, well, he’s Eton and Oxford, what else would you expect? Still, you could see him crumbling inside, like a living corpse —”
He tailed off into silence. Dermot cleared his throat.
“How did you get hold of the letter?”
The Superintendent roused himself from some inner fastness of his mind.
“Eh? Oh, it was her maid, Agnes Jackson. A bright girl, that one, not at all the hysterical, flighty sort. Reads detective stories, too.”
That might mean anything, though the Superintendent’s voice implied approval.
“I gather they thought the mistress was having one of her bad headaches; she gets them once a month or so and woe betide them if they disturb her until the worst is over. But the postman came with a registered letter and wouldn’t take anyone else’s signature. So Agnes tiptoed up to wake her, but when she put her hand on her shoulder she was already cold. At which point, she sent the boot boy for the village bobby and insisted that nothing should be moved or touched until he’d been. The postman kicked up a bit of a fuss about not being allowed to take the postbag, but Agnes was firm.”
Dermot let out a low whistle. “Wasted in domestic service, that one.”
“Quite. Well, the bobby gets to the house at about the same time as the doctor — not her usual man, he’s ill, but the duty chap at the cottage hospital. Their first thought is an overdose of sleeping stuff; either accident or suicide.”
Once again, the Superintendent glanced around the well-proportioned room. Dermot could read his thoughts as if he had spoken them aloud. He had, to be fair, thought them himself a time or so. Why would anyone in possession of all this want to do themselves in? Why DO they do themselves in?
“So they looked for a note?” he prompted.
“That’s about the size of it. And of course, when they opened the post-bag and saw a letter addressed to a top-drawer Harley Street man —” The Superintendent spread his hands in a gesture of finality.
Dermot nodded, again. The bobby and the duty doctor would have already been writing their reports.
Recent bad news— no, no doubt at all, the best man available — no hope — badly advanced — expecting frightful pain —‘balance of the mind disturbed’ — no, put it down as an accidental overdose — no bother with the Coroner — no need to upset the family further.
Until they’d read the letter itself.
Dermot’s tongue flicked out to moisten dry lips. “Well. It’s unexpected. Not the sort of thing you expect to find in rural Gloucestershire, is it?”
The Superintendent vented his feelings in a long and expressive sigh. “Thank God, no. We’ve got our fair share of queer customers, but this kind of highbrow Freudian stuff is a different matter altogether. My first thought was the deceased might have been a bit off her head herself, but we haven’t heard a breath of that from the staff. If anything she seems to have been almost too much on the ball.”
Dermot decoded that as “damp finger over every surface for dust and a sharp eye out for flirtations with the tradesmen.” Good. Disgruntled servants were pure gold in any investigation.
“I can see why you might have had your doubts, sir. When a woman writes to one of the leading consulting psychiatrists in the country, claiming her son’s developed an idée fixe that a middle-aged local lady doctor is the living embodiment of the Corn Goddess and he’s been destined all his life to be her sacrificial bridegroom, anyone might wonder.”
He steepled his hands in a gesture he recalled, a split second too late, he had copied from Uncle Henry.
“But, how on earth could she possibly know that, sir? I can’t imagine it’s the sort of thing a man tells his mother.”
“Read his diary, most like,” the Superintendent said. “Oh, I’ve not found it, but you’ve only got to meet young Fleming to know he’s just the sort to have poured out his soul for the benefit of posterity, and not had the wit to keep it locked sensibly away in the here-and-now. And he doesn’t deny the goddess business, either; just says it’s too sacred and precious to contaminate by talking about it.”
Dermot thought he was beginning to see what the Superintendent meant by “Difficult — but not in the usual way.” He tapped the letter. “It says here, sir, the boy had a bad head injury last year. Fell off his horse and nearly died. The head injury does make the idée fixe notion a bit more plausible. You can never tell how concussion cases are going to turn out.”
The Superintendent gave a snort of disgust. “Mostly, though, they have the decency to get fixated on the nurses, and the Matron’s got her eye open for that. There’s not a lot she can do if it’s the doctor they go for instead. Though, call me old-fashioned, I’d have thought a doctor would have fought shy of getting themselves involved with a patient.”
“Do we know anything about this Hilary Mansell, sir?”
“I’ve spoken to the Matron at the cottage hospital. According to the Matron, she’s competent enough, so far as her work goes. A bit of a trial, though. Arrogant, not very accommodating, and inclined to pull rank.”
“Doesn’t sound like a very nice lady at all, sir.” Craddock gave the Superintendent his expected straight line. “The Matron said, as far as her work goes. And her private life?”
The Superintendent’s disgusted expression deepened. “A story there, though the Matron wasn’t able to give me much by way of detail. Some of the nurses were more forthcoming, though. Seems this Dr Mansell had ambitions to go into surgery; she was in the running for a permanent position at the hospital where she trained, the Clyde Summers.”
Dermot raised his eyebrows. From the Superintendent’s tone, he had no inkling the hospital in question had a European-wide reputation for neurosurgery. For a woman to be kept on at all, even as a house-surgeon, she must have shown exceptional talent. A mind to be respected, then.
“So what happened?”
“What would you expect? An affair with one of the other junior doctors — not the most discreet of businesses, it seems. Scuppered her chances for the post when the news got round. Well, you can see the consultant’s point. No-one wants to appoint some woman who’ll marry and leave to have babies — or, worse, start producing babies without the benefit of clergy. But of course, she didn’t see it that way. Flounced off in a huff, came here, and started lodging with a Mrs Clare, who’s got a pretty spotty reputation on her own account. Separated from her husband but she can’t have been lily-white herself; filed for her decree nisi but the decree absolute never came through.”
“Oh, dear,” Dermot said. “Bit of a familiar pattern, isn’t it?”
The Superintendent nodded.
“Quite so. And haven’t you noticed, these middle-aged vampire types never seem to be the obviously glamorous sort? I suppose men — at least, if they’ve got any sense — are more on the alert for those. This one’s practically plain. Ten years older than the boy, if she’s a day, and looking twice that. But she saw her chance and got her claws into him good and proper.”
“So how did that happen, sir?”
“Convinced the boy she’d saved his life. Happened to be the doctor on duty when he was brought into the cottage hospital. Managed to make sure she stayed on duty, too. I’ve spoken to the Matron about that. Put off having a consultation with the boy’s own doctor, despite his mother begging her to arrange it on several occasions. Wouldn’t let the mother in to see him.”
That, for the first time, struck an off note. Dermot frowned. Even if a designing woman expected to clash with her victim’s mother in due course, surely picking a quarrel so early in proceedings was foolhardy?
“And saving his life?”
The Superintendent shrugged. “True enough, as far as it goes. Dr Mansell spotted his condition was deteriorating and made a telephone call to her old hospital. They rushed him in for emergency surgery. I daresay any competent doctor on the spot would have done the same.”
Dermot looked down at the letter again. “Dr Mansell’s behaviour seems odd on a number of counts, though, sir. According to Mrs Fleming, she got the boy worked up into proposing, but when he did she then turned round and told the boy she wouldn’t consider his offer unless he chucked up his duties to the estate and went on the stage. That doesn’t make sense. Not if she was after his money.”
Even as he said the words, he felt their inanity. The heir to Larch Hill, like the heir to Pemberley, would have long since grown sick of girls who pursued him for the sake of his acreage. Asking him to renounce his worldly wealth as a proof of love was a masterstroke: the touch not merely of a clever woman, but of a genius. She could always stage a pretty sacrifice of her own pride to his, once the engagement ring was on her finger.
The Superintendent looked pityingly at him.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions this early, shall we? Craddock, here’s what I want you to do. I’ve impounded every poison in the house, from the cleaning closet to the garden-shed, and I’m having the lot inventoried, for when the tests come back from the lab. However, there’s a young pharmacy upstairs in the deceased’s bathroom cupboard. Can you note down all of it, and look out for anything which looks off?”
“Well, I don’t want to prejudice you. But I’d be interested to see anything there that’s come by an unusual route. Or which has restricted access. Or things that shouldn’t be taken in combination with other things, let’s say.”
Dermot chose his next words very carefully. “You mean, you want me to look out for something only someone with medical knowledge would think to use as a poison?”
“Let aside what I want, Craddock. Just use your brains, eh? But when there’s a great big motive staring you right in the face, it’d be foolish not to start considering what means and opportunity the person with that motive might have, wouldn’t it?”
The Superintendent had not exaggerated about the contents of the medicine cabinet. Dr Lowe must be a practitioner of the old school, who refused to allow a patient to leave his surgery without prescribing some mixture to be taken three times a day after meals. Also, Dermot thought resentfully, as his hand started to cramp from noting particulars and dosages, Mrs Fleming seemed to have been Gloucestershire’s most practised hypochondriac.
The cabinet bulged with tinctures, lotions, mixtures, cachets and pills. He even found a green morocco-leather case which, when opened, revealed a hypodermic syringe resting in a slot in its lilac satin interior. There was a second, empty slot, where another syringe should have fitted. Broken, mislaid, away for sterilisation? Or was there something more sinister to explain its absence?
And what, by all the saints, could Mrs Fleming have had need of a hypodermic for, let alone two?
He looked through the medicine collection once more.
Amid the packets he had put aside for further consideration was a white cardboard box whose label bore the words, “One to be injected when the pain is very severe. No more than one injection in any 24 hour period.” Below the instructions was a spidery signature, illegible and hasty.
The box’s seal was broken. When Dermot flipped up the box lid, he found two neat rows of glass vials, each containing a measured dose. At the end of the front row a gap like a missing tooth showed where a vial had been removed.
Dermot carried the box to the window. After a moment’s thought he went back to the jumble on the dressing table and started to sort them into heaps, methodically and according to one sole criterion.
They would call a handwriting analyst, of course. “I”s had to be dotted and “T”s crossed. But, as he worked on in the dust-hung, scented quiet of the murdered woman’s boudoir, a cold, creeping certainty grew in Dermot’s heart.
The florid, broad-nibbed signature of Dr Lowe appeared on a quarter of the medicine labels. The rest were written in neat, nondescript pharmacists’ hands, from chemist shops all round the county. A rotten job for the uniformed branch to match up to prescriptions, especially since Dermot had a strong suspicion that such work would yield nothing but the elimination of lines of defence.
For the box of vials, alone of all the medicines in the room, bore the damning hieroglyph “H.C.Mansell.”