Chapter 1 - The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan by A.J. Hall
For claustrophobes, the last few minutes of a flight must be the worst, Sarah thought. The plane sat immobile on the tarmac, its doors resolutely shut, the beeping and hooting of luggage trolleys from the tarmac below only emphasising the barrier which separated them from the outside world. The over-impatient ones – those with querulous infants or tight transfers – stood, boxed into the front of the plane where their haste had led them, unable to move forward or back. The aisles were crammed with people trying to disentangle their hand-baggage from the convoluted puzzle into which eight hours of transatlantic turbulence had tossed them.
By far the best off were those cynical travellers who, aware that the length of time from a plane taxiing in to its appointed bay and the release of its passengers was a sentence capable of almost infinite extension, had not yet bothered even to release their seat belts. Some, like Sarah herself, were reading, others surreptitiously texting, even one or two still asleep.
Sarah’s lips quirked up as she looked across the vacant middle seat towards the grey mop of curls and blue BA blanket that was all that was visible of Professor Marina Farintosh. So she was capable of being quiet, after all! The aisle passenger had still been stridently laying down the law about something – Wilkie Collins, Sarah thought, or possibly Sheridan le Fanu – with someone in the middle bank of seats long after Sarah had taken the better part of valour, put on her eye-mask and hunched herself against the window in a desperate pretence of sleep which, somehow or other, had at last turned into the real thing.
The hiss of hydraulics and a sudden whiff of cold, fresh air heralded release. Sarah slipped the clasp of her seat-belt and rose, stretching out a hand to shake the sleeper on the shoulder. “Professor? We’re here.”
The blanket slid away from the other passenger’s face. Cold, flat, grey eyes stared sightlessly up. On the instant, without conscious thought Sarah was reaching for a bell to summon the cabin staff and extending her other hand to feel for a pulse in the neck which – with the benefit of ten years medical practice, the last three in one of the less-gentrified parts of Kilburn – she knew from the outset she would not find there, nor in any other part of Professor Marina Farintosh’s body, ever again.
And then, while the inevitable procedures unwound and she barked automatic orders and the well-trained cabin crew and the experienced ground staff combined to demonstrate the human race’s capacity for reducing everything, even Death, to a matter of well-oiled routine, Sarah remembered who should be waiting for her on the other side of the barrier, and, more to the point, who probably would be waiting with him, despite her explicit, emailed instructions to the contrary. And did a little surreptitious texting of her own.
In Sarah’s opinion someone – very probably her – would have strangled John’s flatmate out of sheer exasperation years ago, had it not been for his few, deeply hidden but nonetheless real, redeeming characteristics. Top of which was his ability to find delectable, inexpensive food anywhere within the M25 circle at any hour of the day or night.
Most people would have walked straight past the little cafe on Hounslow High Street, dismissing it as nothing more than a greasy spoon, and so never discovered the wonders of its All Day Full English (£6.50; £6.95 if one chose cappuccino not tea).
And, unlike at the conference where she’d spent the last few days, her breakfast companions weren’t dropping subtle or less subtle hints that, in the interests of her arteries, her moral character, her yin/yang balance and the ultimate viability of Planet Earth she really ought to be having the tofu and macrobiotic sprout salad instead.
She forked up fried potatoes and closed her eyes as she chewed.
“Fried in beef dripping – a Yorkshire speciality, not something one would expect to find in Hounslow.” Sherlock’s irritatingly assured accents broke into her jet-lagged absence of thought. “However, in a touch of culinary genius, the beef dripping that gives the potatoes their savour has been lightened by a judicious admixture of groundnut oil, a dash of sesame and a hint of chilli. Yorkshire origins; South East Asian influence. Family recipe, no doubt the proprietor’s mother’s. The dish has clearly been honed over many years of catering to English palates, yet this cafe has been open no more than eighteen months. Further, it must be the proprietor’s first commercial venture. The relentless Philistinism of the British palate renders even the most optimistic restaurateur jaded in short order and yet everything from the hand written menus to the home-bottled chutney suggests that the green shoots of hope still flourish in this unpromising soil.”
She heard the chink of cutlery being laid neatly side on a plate, but kept her eyes shut. She could picture Sherlock leaning back in his chair, hands steepled beneath his chin, handing down his nuggets of wisdom to lesser mortals; she didn’t actually have to watch it.
“Thick cut organic bacon from an artisan producer in Wiltshire – just a trace of the maker’s stamp left on the rind; an unmistakeable violet shade. Cares about ingredient quality, obviously. But why not Bury black pudding? Prejudice; a Yorkshireman’s refusal to admit to excellence in anything originating from the other side of the Pennines? Possible. But why go all the way to France to find a substitute? This black pudding -“
Sarah, eyes still closed, imagined him gesturing dramatically with it, and let out a small giggle. It did not break the flow of Sherlock’s pontification in the smallest degree.
“Bound with cream, not cereal. Therefore, a Normandy boudin noir So, the person who composed this meal came under French as well as South-East Asian influences in his earliest years. Breakfast is the first dish the child learns to appreciate, and the one where early prejudices are hardest to shift. Where do we get that particular combination? Vietnam, surely. Doubtless the proprietor’s mother learned her cooking in the days when it was still French Indo-China, left her homeland as a refugee in the aftermath of the upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s, and finally found a haven in Yorkshire.”
Sherlock’s voice sounded soothing, even musical, provided one just bathed in the sound and blocked out the words. How unlike – how very unlike – Professor Farintosh’s relentless, aggrieved squawk. Though that was unfair, the woman was dead, and people did not murder people on transatlantic flights just because they found their conversation intolerable -
Murder? Where had that idea come from?
Well, obviously: association of ideas from the presence of Mr Melodrama here. She really ought to try to persuade John to find somewhere else to live – apart from it was handy having a base so close to the West End and nothing else half so salubrious would be available at anything like the same price and, from her own experience of London flat-shares, there was always something iffy about them, and at least with John’s situation, it was obvious from the start what the issue was.
Murder. Inter alia.
I struck up a relationship with a colleague at work a couple of months ago; nothing heavy, a few dates, no long-term commitments – J.’s just back from Afghanistan where he was wounded in action and I’ve been careful not to seem to be pressuring him to go any faster than he’s comfortable with, and that seems to be working out well and the sex is great and we have a wonderful time together, at least, whenever we do get any time together…
However, I’m now pretty convinced J.’s really in love with his flatmate – oh, purely Platonically, as far as that goes, but if you’ve read The Symposium you’ll appreciate there’s room for considerable doubt about how far that did go, frankly. I should mention, that isn’t why I’m writing. I’ve no idea what the flatmate – S. - feels for J. - though he treats him like the wife in an arranged marriage contracted under a particularly patriarchal system, but that’s how he treats everyone, so no clues there, I’m afraid. I’ve been observing S. for as long as I’ve known him, with the benefit of the Encyclopaedia of Psychological Medicine and input from Scotland Yard and I’ve come up with about fourteen inconsistent theories about what’s going on in his head, so I’m certainly not expecting you to try from the limited information in this letter.
No, the real problem is S.’s work or hobby or vocation or however he thinks of it. Unfortunately, that’s murder. No, I meant that literally. Dead bodies follow him about. I’m starting to think of him as the Typhoid Mary of the Homicide Files. And the worst of it all – the bit I could do with your help on, Mariella - is that I’m starting to think it’s catching.
A shadow passed across her closed eyelids.
“Scuse me, love; are you finished? Nowt wrong with it, was there?”
The café proprietor, no doubt. With a Yorkshire accent she could cut with a knife. She opened her eyes and took in his short, straight black hair; amused, mobile features and high, broad cheekbones.
Fuck you, Sherlock.
“Everything was great, honestly. It’s just I –” Her yawn cut off the rest of her apology. John, bless him, cut in.
“Sarah’s just got in from Chicago. Hell of a bad flight.” He paused, then something that might have been a hint of malice infused his voice. “We had a bet on about the potatoes. Olive oil or walnut?”
“Neither. Mum’s special recipe. When she first married Dad, they fought rings round about food. He wanted what his mum always made and she wanted to cook the way her mother had taught her. Her special spuds were thin end of the wedge. Which reminds me, Sherlock; Mum said if you happened to be in Beverley any time, drop in and she’ll make you a bowl of her Phở sách bò. From that blog of yours, she got the idea you don’t eat properly. She’d been meaning to ask you sooner, but I told her hold off till I’d actually met you – you can’t be too careful with people you just know from the internet, can you? Might be axe-murderers or anything.”
He picked up their plates and whisked over to the kitchen hatch. John eyed Sherlock sardonically and Sarah fancied she saw an unaccustomed blush on his normally pale cheeks. Still, he turned to her with apparently unruffled demeanour and said, “So. In your professional opinion, what did kill Professor Farintosh?”
Sarah leaned towards him across the formica table top. “You want my honest opinion?”
He nodded; John, she saw out of the corner of her eye, looked faintly alarmed at her determined, take-no-prisoners tone.
But not as alarmed as he’s going to be.
“Well, I’ve given it some thought – pending the autopsy reports, naturally – and I think – mind you this is only my opinion and it isn’t by any means an official one, it was the Heathrow doctor’s case, after all – but in my opinion it was most likely one of the cabin crew.”
“Sarah, wha -?”John, misguidedly, tried to stand up in a hurry and his bad leg gave way, so he sat down with a hurried bump.
Like I told you; “psychosomatic” is not a synonym for “imaginary”. An injury doesn’t stop being real just because it doesn’t manifest all the time, you twonk. Think of it as being like transubstantiation. Only less mystical and more inconvenient.
Sherlock smiled a slow, satisfied, reptilian smile. His brows nearly vanished into his hairline. “Interesting. Why not one of the passengers?”
Sarah had the answer to that, too. “US security. Whatever was used, must have been brought on board, which means it must have come through security.”
“Whatever was used? Who’s saying anything was used?” John, somewhat disturbingly, sounded more fascinated than appalled; Sherlock’s malign influence again, of course. She turned her head, gazing out through the café’s plate glass window onto the High Street, so as not to have to acknowledge the triumphant gleam in his eye.
You needn’t think I’m giving up without a struggle.
“I am. I was the first to see the body, don’t forget.” Someone had ordered a fresh round of cappucinos; Sarah raised hers to her lips and took a deep, scalding, brain-clearing swallow. “She can’t have had a heart attack or seizure; I’d have heard her. No blood; no bruising; no overt signs of violence. They’ll check at the autopsy, but, so far as I could tell from feeling, the hyoid bone in the neck was quite intact. Manual strangulation or suffocation pretty much eliminated. But I’d say she died of hypoxia, all the same. One of the quick acting neuro-toxins which paralyse the respiratory system, at a guess. And something like that – would have practically had to be injected. Can you imagine the problems a murderer would have trying to smuggle a pack of sharps on board these days, after the last terrorism kerfuffle?”
“Well, cabin crew go through security too -” John began. Sarah waved her hand at him impatiently.
“Knowing the ground crew and all the wrinkles, yes; plus, there’s a lot more things they can legitimately take through – provided they’re in sealed containers and on the manifest. When they ask if there’s a doctor on board, they’ve got to be able to give them something to work with. And in the aftermath of an on-board death, if someone’s broken the seal of the emergency supplies, who’s going to check when that happened?”
She thought a moment, and added, “Plus, no-one’s going to bat an eyelid if they wake up and see a member of cabin crew leaning over them; they’ll just assume they’re checking seatbelts or something. Same with anyone else in the vicinity.”
“Sarah, that’s brilliant!”
She and John struck palms in a quick gesture of triumph before they both simultaneously realised it was scarcely good form to be treating Professor Farintosh as an amusing intellectual exercise, given she could scarcely have reached the morgue yet, and looked away, rather sheepishly.
“An ingenious theory,” Sherlock drawled, “but you will admit that the task of arranging crew rosters so that a particular murderous steward or stewardess is on the same flight as a particular intended victim would require a level of logistical skill which I would, on prior evidence, have considered quite incompatible with being a BA employee. Why not turn your attention to those passengers who might, legitimately, have medical permission to have a hypodermic in their possession? With a couple of quick taps at the keyboard - ” He suited his action to the words, “Mycroft will be able to oblige us. Who could imagine what a benefit the asinine new US rules for pre-registering passengers’ medical supplies would be to a consulting detective?”
“You mean, to a consulting detective with a brother in the higher reaches of Government and no moral scruples?” Sarah corrected sweetly. Sherlock, blast him, merely looked smug. And, John having paid the bill – with Sherlock’s money, I bloody well hope, or we’ll have words – they found themselves a cab and were back in Baker Street, fresh cups of coffee to hand and Sherlock’s laptop just fired up, when the ping of incoming mail told her either that Mycroft had a remarkably serendipitous sense of timing or that he’d been tracking them all the way back from Hounslow High Street by CCTV surveillance.
Sherlock scanned the email and leaned back in his chair, his fingers interlaced with each other at the back of his head.
“Well, well, well. How very interesting. Mycroft has his uses, after all.” He raised his head and looked at them both. “There were three passengers booked onto that flight who had medical permission to bring hypodermic syringes on board. The first of those passengers, however, was booked into first class, and would have experienced considerable difficulty passing unnoticed into economy and returning to her seat for landing.”
“Hang on, not if she’d disguised herself as a crew member,” John said. “Which would, again, have dealt with the issue of people wondering why she was bending over Professor Farintosh.”
“John, you surpass yourself. In the plane loo, no doubt? With an entire line of impatient punters standing outside to witness the transformation as she emerged?”
Sarah’s face blazed hotly. “She might have been wearing the hostess uniform all along. Under – under something. Something that concealed it until she needed it.”
Sherlock’s brows raised even higher. “I admit that the intelligence of airport security officials is not high, but their prejudices can be relied on. Someone prepared for the inevitable hassle of getting a medically required hypodermic on board a flight outbound from the US is hardly going to up the ante by donning a niqaab to do it in. Still less a niqaab concealing a complete fake BA uniform, topped by a preposterous hat.”
She hated to admit he was right. “And the second passenger?”
“Cancelled his flight half an hour before he was due to check-in. Which, of course, leaves the third.”
“Our murderer,” breathed John, which Sarah personally thought was taking rather a lot on trust, even by his standards.
Sherlock’s smile grew broader. “I rather think not.”
“And why not? Surely they’re the obvious suspect? At least, can’t we think up some excuse to go and question them?”
“Not without a Ouija board.”
“Sherlock, you can’t mean –”
“I certainly can. Professor Marina Farintosh had an authorised hypodermic in her hand baggage. Game on, I think.”