Chapter 3 - The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan by A.J. Hall
The buzzer sounded. Sarah cast a quick glance at the list sellotaped to the kitchen cabinet at eye-height, then at the clock. She swore.
“OK, coming,” she yelled down the hall, though they were three stories up and it was hardly likely whoever was at the street door could hear her. She lifted the entryphone and put it to her ear.
“Hi, sorry I’m early. Can you let me in? It’s absolutely chucking it down here.” A woman’s voice, a stranger’s, yet with something oddly familiar about her accent. Anyway, this was a party and they’d invited half the weirder crime fans in the South-East, so it was a bit late to start worrying about axe-murderers now, especially with the baked cheesecakes crisping themselves all to hell in the oven and the sausage-tomato-cheese surprise not even in yet.
Sarah pressed the button and heard the click of the street door opening. “OK, come straight up. I’ll leave the flat door open – sorry, but there’s something burning in the oven –”
She fled, just in time to save the cheesecakes. Leaving them to cool on the oven top she slammed the surprise into the oven, switched the power down to 180 degrees, and turned to see a woman framed in the archway of the kitchen door, her mass of brown-gold curls twisted up on top of her head in a style that immediately made Sarah think of the better-researched kind of Jane Austen dramatisation.
“Fuck! Don’t tell me bloody John just upped and left you to it?” the stranger demanded, shaking the rain from her pale blue raincoat. “Isn’t that just fucking typical? Where is the lazy bugger, the pub?”
“Sherlock’s with him. More probably the morgue. Here, can I help you with that?”
“Thanks.” The empire-line, ankle-length sprigged lilac dress revealed by the coat’s removal heightened the impression that Sarah was playing host to a rogue Bennett sister; judging by the language, the sister never mentioned at Longbourn, who’d disguised herself as a boy and run off to fight at Trafalgar, quite understandable given the overall ghastliness of her family –
Family. Sarah’s harassed brain finally managed to catch up with itself long enough to draw conclusions.
“Oh, you must be Harry. How nice to meet you at last. John wasn’t quite sure you’d be able to make it.”
Harry snorted. “Hoped I couldn’t, more likely. Yes, I’m the sodding prodigal sister.” She lifted her Waitrose carrier bag onto one of the counters and extracted two bottles of Bombay Sapphire. “But John ought to fucking well know me better than to expect me to pass on the chance of finally meeting Mr Weirdo.” Her hand stretched out absently to capture a glass from the draining rack. “Can I help with anything?”
Sarah shoved a second glass across to her. “You could mix me one of whatever you’re having. There’s tonic and lemons in the fridge. But if you fancy a martini, I’m afraid John’s got the vermouth.” She paused. “At least, I gave him a list with ‘vermouth’ written on it. God alone knows what’s happened in the interim.”
Harry, her hand on the fridge door, turned to face her. “The morgue, you said.”
“That or the path. lab. Sherlock wanted to try a couple of experimental toxicology tests on the soft tissue samples. He’d great hopes from the pancreas, I gather.”
“All things considered, let’s go with G&T and not wait for vermouth, shall we?”
Their glasses clinked companionably. The buzzer went.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get it,” Harry said. She covered the entry-phone receiver and turned to look at Sarah. “Mrs Hudson? Oh, I know, from the blog. The long suffering old coot who’s John’s landlady, yes?” She removed her hand. “Hi, yes, come right up. What can I get you to drink?”
Sarah didn’t bother to wait for the answer. The third gin and tonic was waiting on the counter by the time Mrs Hudson flustered her way up the stairs and arrived in the kitchen.
“Bottoms up, dears,” Mrs Hudson said, raising it and knocking back half in a swift swallow. Harry raised impressed, finely arched eyebrows.
“If it’s John who’s driven you to drink I should warn you he’ll bloody well expect you to pay for the taxi home.”
“You’ll be his sister, then, dear. You do have quite a look of him, come to think of it.”
“I know. If I didn’t, I’d be fucking five grand per annum better off. I sometimes wonder if radical facial reconstruction is the way to go.”
“My Raymond had a man he always swore by –”
The buzzer went. Mrs Hudson got magisterially to her feet. “Don’t trouble yourselves, dears. I’ll get it.”
“Sorry I’m early,” Sally Donovan said as she entered and a fussing Mrs Hudson removed her sodden black mackintosh. “But if I hung on at the station I knew I’d be tagged for unscheduled overtime, and I didn’t fancy slogging all the way over to Hoxton in this, just for the sake of coming back again. It’s the bleeding monsoon out there. Christ, is that Bombay Sapphire? You have just qualified for your Girl Guide’s Lifesaving Badge and bar. ‘Specially bar.”
Sarah gestured towards Harry with a tub of taramasalata. “John’s sister brought it. G&T?”
“Any chance of a martini instead? Tonic always reminds me of gripe water. Trust me, anyone who’s ever been baby-sat by my Auntie Esther has had enough gripe water for several lifetimes.”
“Sorry,” Sarah said. “John was supposed to be getting the vermouth and he’s gone awol.”
Sally nodded. “I know. He and the freak were round the station earlier. You should have heard Vince, the duty sergeant, whining when they waltzed off with Professor Farintosh’s left kidney. Oh, that reminds me –”
She extracted an Oddbins carrier from her heavy-duty canvas bag. “There’s a nice bottle of Chianti in there. Tell the freak I bought with him specially in mind.”
The sound of glass shattering on the tiled floor of the kitchen was suddenly, horribly loud. Sarah looked up to see Harry, her face dead white, gripping convulsively at the edge of the counter to remain upright.
“Professor Farintosh’s dead?”
Sally raised her eyebrows. “Three days after the autopsy? She’d bleeding better be, otherwise the Daily Mail will never let the NHS hear the last of it.”
“Marina Farintosh? Radical feminist scholar? Formerly of Wadham College, Oxford, now – oh, fuck it, I’ve forgotten where she ended up.” Harry clicked unsteady fingers. “University of East Anglia? Birkbeck? Sussex?”
“Kent,” Sarah supplied. “Yes, that’s her. Look, can I get you – “
“Does that Tesco Express on the corner stay open late?”
“Yes, but –”
Harry caught up her handbag, snatched the blue raincoat from the rack in the hall, and was gone. Mrs Hudson, acting on some hard-wired impulse, ferreted in the cupboard under the sink, extracted a dustpan and brush, and started to clean up the glass shards. Sally Donovan smiled the serene smile of someone whose curiosity only worked official police hours and who wasn’t being paid time and a half to exercise it off-duty.
“About that martini,” she said. “Suppose I said ‘Noilly Prat’ three times at the gin bottle and then you shook it over ice and served it with a lemon twist, that’d work as an ultra-dry one, wouldn’t it?”
Mechanically, Sarah reached for the cocktail shaker and the ice. The steady rhythm of shaking helped blank out the need for thought. But the image of Harry’s face, more Regency than ever in its frozen pallor, hung between her and her task. Mrs Hudson was right; Harry and John did have a marked family resemblance. At a level it would take more than an extravagant beauty regime or cosmetic surgery to erase. At the level of bone-deep pain.
You are too young to fall asleep forever/And when you sleep, you remind me of the dead.1
Sally wandered across to the fridge and emerged holding a bunch of celery, a red pepper and two carrots.
“These for the dips? Where do you keep your vegetable knife?”
“Drawer next to the sink, but you don’t have to –”
“They aren’t exactly going to julienne themselves, are they? Anyway, I like doing it. Get them exactly the right length and thickness, and you can watch all the ones who are trying to give up smoking go bonkers trying not to pick them up between their first two fingers. Marvellous thing, compulsive compensation. With any luck I get the boss and the freak at one fell swoop.”
The buzzer sounded, on and on, as if someone’s finger had got stuck.
“I’ll go,” Sarah said. As she picked up the receiver half-formed nightmare scenarios flickered unstoppably through her brain.
“Isn’t anyone coming? I’m getting drenched again.” Harry’s voice, no more than reasonably agitated for someone trapped outside in a downpour.
Waves of relief rolled through Sarah’s body; she buckled at the knees, fumbling for a moment before finding the release button for the street door and pressing.
“Right,” Harry said as she breasted her way into the flat, two chinking carrier bags held high above her head. “I have got this straight, haven’t I? Professor Marina Farintosh is dead; deceased; passed on, over, through and off; fucked off to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns; turned her toes up and in other words joined the sodding choir invisible, is that right?”
“Yup.” Sally Donovan took a cigarette out of an inside pocket of her denim jacket, eyed down its length and adjusted the length of some celery batons by approximately two millimetres. “And to prove it, most of her squishy bits are currently in the lab, being given the once-over by the freak and your brother. With the assistance of our vermouth, apparently.”
Harry drew a deep breath and started to pull chilled bottles of Moet from the Tesco’s bags. “Sarah, flutes would be great, but, if not, any old wineglasses will do. Ladies, I give you a toast. ‘Ding, dong, the bitch’s dead!’”
You are too young to fall asleep forever/And when you sleep, you remind me of the dead.
Siegfried Sassoon —The Dug-Out ↩