Chapter 6 - The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan by A.J. Hall
“I’d not have pictured you as a Touran driver,” Sarah said tightly. “More the Prius sort. Or a cyclist.”
“It’s Dave’s,” Heather snapped, automatically defensive, making rather a business of manoeuvring the bulky car out of the tight parking space behind the flats.
“Figures,” Sarah said, as they caught the kerb behind them with a jarring bump.
Dave gestured with the hypodermic. “Shut it. There’s 25ml of insulin in this and you’d better make sure I keep it there. As a doctor, you’ll know just how soon irreversible brain damage will set in once I inject you. And I don’t even have to find a vein.”
He squeezed his body close against hers, though the rear seat of the Touran could have comfortably accommodated three. She flinched at the forced intimacy, hated herself when she saw him smirk.
“Heather, what the hell is this all about?” she demanded, trying to force a note of icy disdain into her voice. “What on earth are you people playing at?”
Heather kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead. “Why did Sherlock want you to Google the Peoria Journal-Star? And what did he mean by, ‘It’s obvious’?”
Oh, God. Of course. My phone.
Her phone on the kitchen table. The phone she knew she’d left on the window-sill. Heather had seen it often enough at Deathcon, even complimented her on its dark green trim. Easy enough to pick it up and nose through the texts in the hope of finding something out. Especially after her blunder about the Key lime pie.
Not a guest trying to ring a mini-cab or put through a surreptitious call to Australia. A piece of sheer, criminal, idiotic stupidity on her part which could well cost her life.
And then she remembered something else about that moment in the kitchen.
My phone. It’s in my pocket.
“I haven’t a clue what he meant,” Sarah said. “You’ve read John’s blog. Sherlock likes being inscrutable.”
The Touran pulled up at a T-junction. Heather flicked the indicator, about to turn left.
“Not that way, you stupid twat!” Dave snapped. “Where do you bleeding think we’re heading, the North Circular? You want to cut down Finchley Road and then take a left across the top of the Park, pick up the A503 near Camden Town tube and make for the A12 down Clapton Road. Women! Why have none of you got any bleeding bloody sense of direction?”
Heather swung the wheel to the right with a vicious jerk. “Oh, why don’t you just come out and say we lost it on the broad savannahs, sitting round the camp fires weaving rush baskets while you great masculine hunters were navigating from antelope to antelope?”
“Listen, you –” Dave leaned forward argumentatively between the two front seats.
On the instant, Sarah reached for her pocket. Two quick taps; John always complained about her handbag ringing him, when she forgot to lock the screen. Let it work in her favour for once.
By the time Dave remembered her existence her hands were clasped innocently in her lap.
After some time, Sarah risked another question. “Where are you taking me?”
“Better for you not to know.” The smirk was loud in his voice. “Just say, we’re on our way to meet someone.”
Dave frowned, then shrugged. “You may as well keep calling her that.”
Heather, more visible than perhaps she realised, tensed, visibly. The car swerved; her hands could not be steady on the wheel.
Sherlock, of course, would have been able to read that reaction with certainty. Sarah at least felt able to risk an educated guess.
Do either of these idiots know her by any other name? Have they actually met her, or is she just another person hiding behind a pseud on the internet? And are we really going to meet her now?
“Did she tell you to take me hostage?”
“No!” came from Heather just as Dave said, “Yes, of course.” They both glared at each other.
“Heather?” she probed. Of the two, she considered Heather the more reliable. She hoped that assessment wasn’t just based on their shared detestation of evol. psych.
Heather gulped, keeping her eyes fixed on the road ahead. “She couldn’t have known the precise circumstances. She just texted Dave to say there was bad trouble coming, and we needed to get out of the party at once and meet her at the – at the place we knew.”
“Taking you hostage was implied,” Dave said firmly. “We needed to protect ourselves in case we were followed. And we couldn’t afford to have your bloke start kicking off. If he’d come out at the wrong moment.”
Sarah closed her eyes, very slowly, and counted to ten.
“Didn’t it even occur to you that leaving a party’s quite a normal thing to do? Especially at half-twelve at night? You don’t need to create elaborate excuses, for crying out loud. You don’t have to take your hostess hostage. A quick, ‘That was lovely, be seeing you’ will generally work, you idiots. I’d have settled for it.”
An awkward silence fell in the car.
“Like Heather said, we need to know what you know,” Dave said. “Vampirevictoria will insist.”
“Like I said: I know bugger all. Squared. Glad we’ve got that settled.” She glanced out of the window. “Camden Town tube already. How handy. Just drop me here, and I can make my own way home. And if I were you, Heather, I’d ditch this idea that vampirevictoria is going to solve all your problems, and try to turn Queen’s Evidence.”
“Shut. Up.” He held up the hypodermic so she could see it clearly against the light spilling out from the underground station. He pressed down, just slightly, on the hypodermic plunger. A bead of clear liquid appeared at the needle tip. “Last tube went long ago. You’re coming with us. All the way – or perhaps even a little further.”
She nodded, choked into silence at last. Dave – being an idiot – would never believe how little she did know. And Dave, being a particular type of idiot, was almost certainly a fan of 24.
How did one convince a torturer that it wasn’t just dogged resistance, that one genuinely had no valid information to offer?
You can’t, a voice said at the back of her mind.
The car bowled on through the silent streets.
Heather turned the Touran into the pub car-park, drew up in the shadows beside the great, derelict building and switched off the ignition.
Metal shutters were bolted over every window, bearing pasted warnings against fly-posting and assurances that all valuables had been removed from the building. Its door was heavily padlocked. The sign which depicted a walrus-moustached Victorian tough alleged to be The Lord Raglan hung askew, one of the mounting brackets rusted through.
Sarah, who had drifted into a kind of sick apathy as the journey progressed, gathered together all the tiny reserves of strength which were left to her. She might be a candle guttering out in a dreary wasteland, but at least she would die knowing she had made an effort.
“Heather, have you any conception, any at all, of just how big a fuck-up this is? I don’t know – and, frankly, I don’t care – if this mysterious vampirevictoria is going to show up out of the night and hand you – oh, I don’t know, false passports and new identities and first-class one-way tickets to Callao or whatever it is you’re expecting. But – even if she does – and even if you kill me to cover your tracks, your problems really are only just starting.”
Heather turned her head, staring at her. Sarah, borne up by adrenaline, exhaustion and a deep-banked core of sheer fury, concentrated on holding her attention. Dave was beyond hope; Heather she might reach.
“This is your last chance. Turn the car round; drive to the nearest cop shop, turn yourself in for kidnapping me. Who knows, maybe they won’t find any poisons in Professor Farintosh’s body –”
“Vampirevictoria’s text confirmed they’d found taipoxin. What the fuck – who checks for Australian snake venom in England? She promised us – ” Dave’s aggrieved monotone broke in.
She gave him a false, reassuring smile. “But lab tests are all circumstantial, anyway; you get one forensic expert contradicting another in the witness box all the time. Anyway, who’s to say you poisoned Farintosh? You could say you snatched me in a blind panic, convinced you were about to be accused of a murder with which you had nothing to do. My lawyer friends tell me the CPS is shambolic, juries go peculiar, the prosecution must prove its case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. You’ve got a chance.”
She tried to make her next words count.
“But if you kill me – or cause me permanent harm with that insulin – John will never let it rest; never, ever. You don’t know him, and I haven’t known him long but one thing I do know about him; he’s reliable. To the core. If I don’t leave here unharmed, tonight, he will never forgive himself while you remain alive and at liberty. And Sherlock’s an arrogant arsehole who’ll never allow himself to be beaten by anyone, let alone by –”
Her tongue stumbled, wanting to say idiots. She compromised.
“By amateurs. And even if he weren’t, so far as I can tell nothing matters to Sherlock more than John and if Sherlock’s got scruples I’ve yet to see them. So if he thinks it’d make John feel one smidgeon less guilty about this whole fiasco to find your two severed heads grinning out at him side by side from the fridge one morning when he’s looking for the milk for his cornflakes, then, trust me, Sherlock will arrange it. And that’s before you even get on to Scotland Yard, who will be feeling so bloody humiliated to have you waltz me out of a party under the noses of an Inspector and a Sergeant that they’ll throw every bloody last thing they can find at it.”
She was beginning to hyperventilate, her throat constricting with the intensity of her emotion. She choked the last words out.
“And if – by some unbelievable stroke of sheer blind bloody luck – you dodge all of that, then you’ve still got to get past Sherlock’s godawful brother Mycroft, who may be an ice-cold certified 100% proof bastard, but if he thinks he can bring off something which will make his little brother feel impressed and grateful and humiliated, all at the same time, he will probably invoke first strike nuclear capability in order to do it. And, Heather, THAT IS NOT A FUCKING METAPHOR, OK?”
She ran down, gasping, her last reserves exhausted.
Dave jerked his thumb to the right. “Someone’s been reading too much James Bond. Trust me; it’s not going to happen. Your wounded warrior won’t find you here. Get out of the car. And don’t try anything.”
During the early part of the journey she had considered making a grab for the hypodermic; trying to hit a few strategic nerve groups in his arm. But the car was tightly locked; he was stronger than she was, more alert; had Heather to back him up. And now they had reached their journey’s end, and all her energy had leached away, somewhere along the A12, and this grim, abandoned pub would probably be the last place she saw on earth.
She followed Dave from the car, stumbling a little, shivering in the cold air, the wind which swept over this urban wasteland knifing through the thin linen of her shirt, the rain driving against her skin. She waited, apathetically, as he tapped the code into the elaborate combination padlock and the back door opened to his touch. He fumbled a little, feeling for something by the side door. He found the main switch and harsh fluorescence flooded the back part of the pub.
That caught her attention. “The power’s still on?”
He smiled. “Vampirevictoria owns this place. At least; she took an assignment of the lease from the receivers. Move it. Into the kitchen.”
He gestured towards her with the hypodermic, once again doing his trick of letting a bead of liquid reach the needle’s tip, before slowly withdrawing it out of close proximity, though not out of reach of a quick jab.
Something nagged at the extremities of her mind but she was so damned tired. No-one could be expected to think straight when they were so tired.
She slept-wallked into the kitchen, submitted to being pushed down into a rickety kitchen chair, allowed them to bind her ankles to its legs and her wrists behind her with a roll of duct-tape which Dave fished out of the toolkit he’d produced from the cupboard under the sink.
Heather hovered nervously by the door, a look of acute embarrassment on her face.
Dave selected the long-nose pliers, a hand-drill and two super-fine bits from the toolkit. He set them out on a folded tea-towel on a stool where she could see them and moved behind Sarah; well within her personal space – she could feel his breathing, warm on her neck and ear – but out of her line of sight.
“Now,” he said, “there’s an easy way and a hard way. So, I’m offering you the easy way first. Tell me all you know about Professor Farintosh’s death. All you’ve told the cops.”
Sarah groaned. “We did this bit by Camden Town tube. I told you then. Bugger all squared. Yes; I think she was murdered. Scotland Yard doesn’t, by the way.”
“Like I’d take your word for what Scotland Yard believes. Like they’d take you into their confidence.” Dave must have moved even closer; his voice sounded unexpectedly loud. The hairs rose on the back of her neck. With an effort, she resisted the temptation to crane round to look, tried to make her voice as calm and matter-of-fact as possible.
“I think the active agent was a neuro-toxin used to contaminate her own insulin supplies and self-administered by her. You – ” She bit her lip again as the forbidden word idiot tried to surface. “You yourself mentioned taipoxin – I had no idea anything had been found in the tissue samples – to the best of my belief they are still being analysed. Her sister seems to have been killed in mysterious circumstances many years ago. I didn’t know anything about that until this evening. And that’s it. Seriously. That’s it.”
“Oh, dear.” He didn’t even bother to fake regret in his voice. “So you did decide to opt for the hard way.”
She felt her ear-lobe being grasped in the cold, metallic grip of the pliers.
Heather yelped, unexpectedly loud in the tense silence of the kitchen.
“What?” Dave snapped, increasing the pressure. Sarah gritted her teeth. She’d played lacrosse for her school; that ought to help on the pain front. Perhaps.
Heather’s voice sounding breathy and over-loud. “I heard something. Something moving about. Perhaps vampirevictoria? Shouldn’t we check?”
The pressure of the pliers relaxed. “Good idea.” A pause. “Well, go and do it, then.”
“Who, me?” In any other circumstances the appalled expression on Heather’s face would have been funny.
No doubt, growing up, she had seen the same movies as Sarah. Halloween, Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street. And, like Sarah, she’d internalised an essential message from those movies.
If you’re a young woman in a large, derelict Victorian building on a really foul night, wind and rain lashing the building, you do not leave all your companions in the brightly lit kitchen in order to check out some random ‘noise’. Which you suspect may be a mysterious intruder. Not unless you want to end up as a random body part. In close-up.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sarah said. “You can’t possibly send her. Suppose it’s some random junkie looking for a place to shoot up. Or the bobby on the beat, wondering why the lights are on here. You’re much the best person to get rid of – whatever it is. I’m not going anywhere, am I? And Heather can keep an eye on me.”
Dave moved round, into her line of vision.
“You could have a point,’ he admitted, grudgingly. “OK. Heather. You’re in charge here. Don’t let her try to get round you. And anything she says that looks like it might be important, make a note, and I’ll take a look at it when I get back.”
The air seemed fresher when the kitchen door had shut behind him. Sarah let out a long, unsteady breath and essayed a cautious glance at Heather.
“I – look, I know there’s no accounting for tastes, but – um – really? You and Dave?”
Heather looked at her, and then gave vent to a horrified giggle. “Sarah, are you quite mad? Me and Dave? I’m not the woman whom taste forgot, you know.”
Sarah would have made a dismissive, hand-wavy gesture of apology had it not been for the duct-tape securing her hands behind her back to the uprights of the chair. And if she’d felt at all apologetic.
“Well, you know; hostage situation, conspiracy to murder, suggests some intimacy to me. Sorry if I got your relationship status wrong.” A vindictive, rather off-its-head-on-adrenaline part of her mind mentally added, You should have posted an update on Facebook.
Heather moved a little closer, nervously, like a bird approaching scattered crumbs.
“Did you ever get it wrong. Dave came much later. Vampirevictoria introduced him as someone who could give us access to Farintosh’s brand of insulin – look, I think it’s important for you to understand that we never – originally – planned on poisoning her, just putting something harmless but noticeable into her medication to show her we could do worse. If we chose.”
Sarah’s next words came out through gritted teeth. “Did it never occur to you that she actually needed that medication to survive? That any form of tampering with it – even diluting it with tap water – was morally the same as putting – what was it? – Australian snake venom in it.”
Heather’s face in the harsh white light looked stricken, bewildered. But not innocent. At some point she had consciously accepted the upgrade to a “real” poison. Sarah noted that fact, in some remote filing cabinet of her mind, and changed tack.
“You said, We. Not you and Dave, then. You and who else?”
Heather paused. “Me and Caroline. Of course.”
For a moment Sarah’s mind whirled. Caroline? Caroline who? Then her brain caught up.
“Not – you can’t mean Caroline? Your first Deathcon roommate? The one who kept chucking her dental brace at your head? That Caroline?”
Heather somehow managed to look first sheepish, then a little daring, then proud. “My lover Caroline. Yes.”
Sarah paused, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “And how long’s that been going on?”
“About eighteen months. We met at Marlowecon, in Seattle, but we’ve been keeping it quiet. And there’s been the whole long-distance thing, too. She’s from this poisonous small town right in the heart of Bible-belt Texas and she’s in a vicious custody battle with her ex and coming out would completely play into his hands.”
Sarah bit her tongue, hard. It would do no good to point out that getting involved in a murderous conspiracy wouldn’t help Caroline’s domestic difficulties, either. She thought of Mrs Hudson – the widowed Mrs Hudson – and shuddered. Surely Texas, as well as Florida, had the death penalty for murder? In which case Caroline’s domestic difficulties might shortly be at an end altogether.
If Caroline went to the execution chamber, Sarah’s own hands would be far from clean. She spared a thought for the unknown kids who would ultimately pay the penalty for her deciding to busy-body Professor Farintosh’s death. They would lose their mother amid all the hideous publicity of a murder trial. What a gift this would be to the tabloids. A toxic cocktail of fan conventions (with all the built-in assumptions about weirdos that conveyed), feminist fallings out, lesbian sex, exotic neuro-toxins derived from snake venom –
They’d hardly hear the last of it until next century.
But on the other hand, if she hadn’t interfered, the kids would have been left in the care of a woman who’d successfully brought off an undetected poisoning, and no-one could say that made for ideal family relationships, either.
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” she murmured.
“You mean Elliot? I’ll say. Can you imagine what a bastard a bloke has to be to write to his kids’ high school and tell them a woman who’s been kicked out of college for plagiarism isn’t fit to supervise her kids’ homework, and insist the school run all the kids’ written assignments through turnitin, ‘to keep them honest’?” Heather’s face contorted with indignation.
“And had she been kicked out for plagiarism?”
“Well, yes. But it was years and years ago – I think she was only a kid – nineteen or so – and it was one of those fearfully snotty, pressure-cooker little women’s liberal arts colleges somewhere in New England. You know, the sort who bang on about ‘honor codes’ and ‘zero tolerance policies’ but don’t give their students any actual support when they start getting behind on their assignments. No wonder they resort to essay mills or cribbing stuff off the internet. And then you get someone like Farintosh coming in like the sodding Inquisitor-General, heading up a commission of enquiry, and everything gets out of hand and about half-a-dozen people end up being kicked out and having their lives ruined. I think, to be honest, Caroline ended up getting involved with Elliot in reaction to the whole college mess.”
“And I suppose she ended up getting involved with you in reaction to the Elliot mess?” Sarah asked, acerbically.
Heather sat on the steel worktop, swinging her legs awkwardly. It gave her a curiously adolescent, unfinished look. Sarah didn’t know whether to feel more pity or exasperation. But the woman was twenty-seven, for pity’s sake, and no-one had the right to be that wet behind the ears, whatever their age.
Dave pushed open the door, looking flustered and ill-tempered; Sarah hoped he’d been thinking of slasher movies, too.
“There’s no-one there, you stupid bint,” he announced. “You’re imagining things. Either that, or you’re trying to stop me getting what she knows out of your little feminist friend here.”
Heather shook her head. “No – honestly. I’m sure I heard something. And vampirevictoria should have been here by now. You know that.”
“She said she’d meet us here. But she hasn’t come,” Sarah muttered.
Dave strode across the room, reaching for the hypodermic which he had left on the draining board, leaning into her face.
“So you think you’re so clever? Well, you’ve been clever enough to convince me. That you don’t know anything useful. So – this is where it ends. Now.”
Heather’s hand went to her mouth, looking desperately across the room into Sarah’s eyes, murmuring a soundless, futile apology. Sarah stared back, steadily. Apology not accepted. Your choices led me here.
Behind Heather’s back, the kitchen door eased open.
Sherlock stood outlined in the archway, ghost-pale in the harsh fluorescence. In his hand she could see the glint of steel. Familiar steel. A knife she had last seen in the hand of Sally Donovan, julienning red peppers.
He glided across the floor. Not until Sarah’s vegetable knife was poised a fraction of a millimetre above Heather’s carotid artery did he make his presence known.
“Good evening,” Sherlock said. “I believe I’m the person you’ve been waiting for.”