Chapter 5 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall
“Hyoscine? Injected or ingested?” Hilary looked across the table at her lawyer.
Ben Carley tapped his sheaf of papers. She recognised, even upside down, the UCH letterhead, and the knot in her stomach tightened.
“Probably the latter, but Spilsbury’s hedging his bets. Possibly because there’s one hypodermic present which checks out clean and another absent without leave, which could have contained anything. No unexplained puncture marks, that anyone’s been able to find.”
She thought she could, by now, begin to decode her solicitor’s hints, even if Ben Carley was too downy a bird to do anything which could be regarded as leading a witness.
“He’s taken a view? I thought the Home Office pathologist was supposed to be objective?” Her voice came out thin and a little shrill, but steady, thank God.
Carley cleared his throat. It had a peculiarly ironic ring to it. “Supposed being the operative word, Dr Mansell. He takes an objective and evidence-based view of the infallibility of his own first impressions. I’m sure you’ve come across the type. And since you are known to have prescribed the lady an injection recently —” His dark eyes glanced round the prison interview room, making the point without need for further words.
Hilary bit her lip, recalling the surgery; that tense, unexpected, end-of-hours encounter with Elaine Fleming.
“Dr Lowe’s been ill. We’ve all been covering his patients.” She hesitated. “To be honest, I hadn’t expected Mrs Fleming to come to me, even if it were only for a repeat prescription. Neuralgia. Also, I don’t usually prescribe injections — most patients are bad at them, and you don’t want an intramuscular jab turning into an intravenous one accidentally. But it is the most effective way of dealing with acute pain. And, as I said, Dr Lowe wrote the original prescription.”
“And no professional wants to be put in the position of questioning another professional’s judgement in so many words. Especially not if they suspect the client — sorry, patient — is egging them on to do just that.” Carley’s boot-button eyes were shrewd and, unexpectedly, kind; she blessed Lisa again for finding him.
“You sound as if you knew Mrs Fleming.” Her voice came from somewhere remote, hardly under her control at all. Tears pricked behind her eyes.
“Here.” Carley reached inside his jacket, produced a cigarette case, lit one for her and passed it across the table. At her reaction, he grinned. “Rank hath its privileges. As does remand.”
He lit another cigarette for himself, and leaned back as far as the uncompromising prison chair permitted, crossing his pin-striped legs at the ankles. “I can’t say I knew Elaine Fleming. But I’ve met her kind before. Why do you think she came to consult you, beyond hoping you might say something uncharitable about Dr Lowe which she could share with the church flower committee?”
Hilary took a long drag on her cigarette. The smoke’s harsh familiarity calmed her nerves, allowing her to think straight for the first time in an age.
“I think she wanted to take a close look at me when all the constraints were on me, not her. No matter what she said, I could hardly throw a patient out.”
“Yes, I see.” Carley, mercifully, chose not to press enquiries as to what had passed between them. That memory was too raw to go near. “So you made up the prescription yourself?”
“Yes. It was right at the end of the day, and I didn’t want her going round saying I’d made her drive miles round to the duty chemist. All made up exactly as Dr Lowe would have done it. Not a trace of hyoscine. It’s all in the book. The police have seen it.”
“So they have. But they’ve also seen that over two grains of hyoscine hydrobromide is missing from the surgery dispensary, unaccounted for. That would be what? About four times the normal lethal dose?”
“Easily.” Hilary shivered. “Closer to eight.”
“And was there any moment during the time Mrs Fleming was in the surgery when she might have abstracted it?”
“Mrs Fleming? Certainly not!”
Involuntarily, below the level of the table, Hilary’s hand clenched in a fist. She had not intended to put the emphasis there. Odd, how the sub-conscious mind knew things long before one’s consciousness dared entertain them. Perhaps she ought to have paid more attention to Freud while she’d had the chance.
Carley, fortunately, seemed not to have noticed.
“If you could manage to be slightly less definite when Counsel for the Prosecution ask you the same question, your defence team will be exceedingly grateful.”
The creeping cold inside her deepened — when the poison reached her heart, she would be gone — but only crystallised her thoughts.
“That cock won’t fight. You’ll never get a jury to believe Elaine Fleming stole two bob’s worth of hyoscine from a doctor’s surgery. Her son’s fiancée’s surgery, to boot. Half the tradesmen in the neighbourhood will queue to tell the court she made a five mile detour to pay them a ha’penny under-charge. Murder — yes, there are some murders a jury might believe of her. Petty theft? Never.”
Carley exhaled a long, slow curl of smoke. “Dear God! What a woman.”
Impossible to tell if distaste or amusement were uppermost in his expression.
“Anyway,” Hilary said doggedly, “If I’m supposed to have slipped the woman the hyoscine, how am I supposed to have done it? She wouldn’t even let me give her the injection she’d come for: ‘No, Dr Mansell, don’t trouble yourself. I shall do it at home. I was a VAD in the Great War, I know perfectly well what to do.’”
The mimicry came out more accurate and more cruel than she had intended. She gripped, hard, on the edge of the table, to retain her balance.
Carley scribbled a quick note on his pad. Impossible to decipher; his handwriting was almost as crabbed as a doctor’s.
“I take it those vials are standard — size, shape and manufacturer?”
She nodded. “The practices round here have a buying club, to keep costs of medical supplies down. I could have sneaked a vial of hyoscine into the box and waited for Mrs Fleming to inject herself, yes. But it’s a ludicrous idea. I doubt she uses more than one or two vials a month at the outside. You can’t plan a murder which might happen any time in the next six months.”
Their existing cigarettes were barely half-smoked but Carley pulled out his cigarette case again and flipped open the hinged lid.
“Think of this as the box. Each cigarette is a vial.”
“Double layer, not single.” She could recall the care with which she had packed them, as if she would be judged wanting if they strayed a few thousandths of an inch from the true.
“Doesn’t matter. No-one’s going to take one from the lower layer before the top one’s used up. Now. Assume a right-handed person’s holding a hypodermic — sterilised, so can’t put it down. Assume they’ve had medical training. How do they take a vial from the box?”
Hilary mimed the sequence, keeping her eyes on Carley’s face, relying on pure muscle memory. “Right hand vial, top layer. Every time.”
“Quite. So, if that’s the line they’re going down, then yes; you could, with reasonable accuracy, have known which vial Mrs Fleming would use first. But what you couldn’t have done is got rid of the evidence afterwards. That is, not without help. Though, I’m afraid, that’s inconclusive. They found a bottle of distilled water in the room; it seems Mrs Fleming made a point of flushing through the syringe after each use.”
“VAD training. She would.” Even injected, a lethal dose of hyoscine would take time to act. There might just have been time enough. Absence of evidence was not evidence of absence. It was the sort of thing forensic experts argued about for days in the witness box.
She bit her lip, her eyes unfocussed. After an endless second, Carley got to his feet.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
At the door he turned round.
“Give a bit of thought to how that hyoscine could have left your surgery. Don’t let sentiment obstruct your imagination. Don’t forget; it’s your neck at stake — no-one else’s.”