Mrs MacCrumpet lay in a hospital bed with an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth. Her eyes were closed and she looked to be fast asleep. A cannula had been placed in her arm and connected to an intravenous line. A small plastic bag containing salts, amino acids, glucose and lipids hung from a thin cradle that drip fed her. A heart monitor flickered and blinked. A nurse was walking away as Hilary and Adam approached. They tried to catch her eye but she rustled by in a swish of cotton.
Hilary looked on at her housekeeper with a feeling of despair. Her eyes brimmed with tears. She made a concerted effort to control her emotions, feeling rather foolish. Adam put his hand in his hers but she pulled away as though scalded. She looked at him and shook her head.
A young doctor, all white coat and honest endeavour, approached them. He had a stethoscope hanging around his neck. He looked at them apprehensively then went over to where Mrs MacCrumpet lay. Looking at the heart monitoring machine, he seemed to make a mental note then turned to walk away. Hilary called out to him.
“Excuse me Doctor but might I have a word?”
He turned towards her, obviously nervous.
“Certainly, how may I help?”
Hilary looked at him, looked at how young he seemed; fresh-faced and pale with a fringe of dark hair that fell across his forehead. He still had freckles upon his nose.
“My name is Hilary Leatherbarrow. That lady there is my housekeeper. How is she? She looks to be in a bad way.”
The young medical man looked from Hilary to Adam then back again. He appeared to be caught between his conscience and his Hippocratic Oath.
“Are you family?” he asked.
Before Hilary could answer Adam interjected.
“I am DCI Adam Lazarus. This is my colleague Doctor Hilary Leatherbarrow. That woman lying there is a victim of an arson attack. Surely you can tell us something?”
The indecision was visible on the young man’s face. He clearly didn’t know what to do. Just then, as if out of nowhere, another doctor appeared. He was much older and came towards them with a flutter of his white coat which flapped as he walked. Behind him, a gaggle of junior doctors hurried with a starched, stern Matron following.
“Hello, I’m Adare Stuart Monson. I’m a consultant here at Winchester General. How may I help?”
Adam went through the same routine he had with the younger doctor.
“I see,” said Stuart-Monson. “Doctor Bolton, please give as detailed a report you can to these people.”
“But these people are not family or relatives, sir!” exclaimed the younger medic.
“I’ll take full responsibility,” Stuart-Monson assured his junior team member.
The younger man blinked once or twice then held his hand to Hilary and Adam to indicate that they should go toward the bed on which Mrs MacCrumpet lay. Hilary turned to Stuart Monson and thanked him. He smiled graciously then returned to his ward rounds followed by his small entourage.
“I’m James Bolton,” he announced through dry lips. “Mrs MacCrumpet is my patient.”
“How is she?” asked Hilary, not allowing the doctor to finish his sentence. “We were told she wasn’t badly burnt so why all the bandages?”
James Bolton shuffled uncomfortably. He was a nervous man, nervous and thin thought Adam and not really suited to the career he had chosen. He answered hesitantly and when he spoke it was in a very deliberate manner.
“The ambulance crew thought the burns on her arms were minor but her overall condition is far worse than that. Her left arm is okay but her right has suffered most. From what Mrs MacCrumpet said to me and the other members of staff the fire soon took hold of the lower floor where she was trapped. A wall of flame had sprung up preventing her from getting out of the building via the door. The only way out was to climb through the upper storey window, the one directly above the front door. She managed to do this so that she was standing on the ledge above the entrance. As she started to lower herself down, clinging onto the ledge as it were, a sheet of fire from the lower floor erupted and engulfed her right arm. Naturally, the shock and the pain made her let go. Fortunately, she didn’t hurt herself in the fall, apart from a grazed knee, but the outburst of flame had damaged her arm more than was first thought.”
Hilary stared into Doctor Bolton’s face, scrutinising it, looking for something but she didn’t know what, reassurance perhaps.
“She will be okay though won’t she?”
The youthful eyes looked into hers. There was no comfort to be had in them.
“The burns on her arm will leave scars, bad ones but that is not the major concern.”
Hilary felt exasperated by this man’s dithering. Why couldn’t he just spit out whatever it was he had to say? Adam could feel her annoyance and spoke sharply to the young doctor.
“Can we please stop skirting around the issue here? What is wrong with Mrs MacCrumpet? Is she in danger of losing her life?”
.Doctor Bolton’s cheeks flushed a bright red. The way Lazarus had spoken had both startled and angered him. He was after all doing his very best.
“She is in no immediate danger but smoke inhalation has almost certainly damaged her lungs. At this stage, I have no idea how badly ‘burnt’ they are. I won’t be able to assess her condition until further tests are carried out.”
“When will that be?”
Tomorrow, at 10.15.”
Hilary’s hand shot up to her mouth. She chewed upon her fist. Tears filled her eyes. She knew what damage smoke could do to lungs. She had seen the results often enough. The lab had contained a great deal of formaldehyde which is highly toxic when inhaled. Hilary’s mind raced as she delved into her knowledge of the effects of the chemical on the lungs. Short term there could be wheezing, coughing, watery eyes, skin irritation, even nausea and possibly chest pains but the symptoms would eventually subside but long term there could be the risk of cancer. There was also the additional problem of her heart.
“What ratio would you give that she may have to she may have to use breathing apparatus constantly for the rest of her life?”
“It is hard to say at this stage, fifty-fifty? She was inside the building far too long. She couldn’t see that well and the fire spread at an alarming rate. Her lungs have inhaled a lot of smoke but also a deal of toxic material too. I’m sorry.”
They thanked him. Lazarus shook his hand then he turned to Hilary who had started to walk away down the corridor. He could see how upset she was, how shaken and possibly feeling guilty for not having been there. All of which was utter nonsense but also perfectly understandable. He knew how he felt when one of his team was injured. He felt dreadful about Penny Farthing’s death. He took hold of Hilary’s elbow and started to lead her toward the hospital exit. She didn’t stop him. She just went along without a word.
As they got to double swing doors, Hilary turned toward him. For someone so utterly in command of her life, she suddenly looked very small and uncertain. The realisation of how mortal we all are had hit her like a bolt from the blue. She found that funny, ironic even paradoxical. She was, after all, a Forensic scientist, a doctor who regularly performed autopsies. She dealt with life and death and yet this near-death experience of her housekeeper, the woman’s possible physical impairment caused by an arsonist, somehow brought everything into sharp perspective.
“Hold me,” she whispered.
He did as asked holding her close to him, kissing the top of her head as though she were a child.
“I don’t think I can go home tonight. May I stay with you?”
He cupped her face in his hand then kissed her again this time on the forehead, then, taking her hand in his, he walked her toward his car.
Lazarus had put Hilary in a spare room. He had dismissed the idea of having her sleep with him, thinking it better that she had a full night of undisturbed rest. Not that he had any desires he couldn’t control but he knew that even in sleep you could detect another’s physical presence. What Hilary needed was time alone to gather her thoughts and collect her emotions.
Debbie had also taken to her bed still trying to catch up on the sleep she had lost whilst Miles was sitting in the living room watching athletics on TV. With the others either sleeping or occupied elsewhere, this gave Adam the opportunity to assess the facts he had managed to collect.
Harry Hertlasp had murdered, some twenty years ago, his employers Dame and Sir Clement Fatleaf. He had killed them in a moment of rage when they had announced they no longer needed his service. Having killed the pair he then dismembered their bodies, keeping their remains hidden in a freezer cabinet in an old shed he had acquired on what had been Martin Tickpant’s land. Hertlasp had worked with Agatha Nosebag who had learnt of his crime and, seemingly, had blackmailed him. Harry had, over the course of those twenty years, been disposing of the dismembered body parts. The first hand - that of Sir Clement Fatleaf, had been found by two twelve-year-old boys, Sam Grimstain and Todd Gosling, in a bush near Birchtickle pond. The second hand, that of Dame Fatleaf, had been found in a skip.
When Hilary had conducted her investigations, a hand lotion that had stopped being manufactured years ago was found on both hands. This much was obvious and easily proved. Then things had started to happen that seemed odd and unrelated to the ‘Hand In Glove’ case.
Kevin Migham took his own life by leaping from the top floor of a building. The cause of death remained suicide until Hilary proved otherwise. Migham had been beaten to death then dropped from a great height to cover up the murder. Migham had a tattoo on his shoulder, one that linked him to the covert operation of The East India Company’s Special Executive. This branch was known as the Brethren. It was a confusing fact that had been perpetuated by a similarly named organisation of white supremacists operating out of Fekenham Swarberry.
Cooper Kloot was a victim of a hit and run. He was driven over by a car. He too had a tattoo on his shoulder identifying him as one of the Brethren. Was he, as Lazarus believed, Migham’s killer?
There was also the man who had been shot through the head. Like Migham and Kloot, he shared the same tattoo.
Then Agatha Nosebag had been found dead with a pair of garden shears forced through her mouth and out the other side. Whoever had committed the murder had to be strong. Although Hertlasp had admitted to being blackmailed by Agatha he denied killing her. Lazarus believed him but he doubted a judge or jury would.
Jean Grimstain was found murdered in the exact same manner as Agatha Nosebag. A pair of garden shears had been thrust with considerable force through her open mouth and out the other side. Like Nosebag’s death, the killer had to be either very strong or somehow energised to the extreme.
Finally, Police Woman Penny farthing had been stabbed in her flat. Whoever the killer was they were experts at the art of murder. The murder had all the hallmarks of a professional assassination.
This amounted to, not counting the ‘Hand In Glove’ pair, seven, unconnected deaths. But were they unconnected, thought Lazarus? Were the ‘shears murders’ somehow linked to the ‘tattoo killings’? Were they in turn, unfathomably, related to Penny’s death? If they were, what was that connection? What could possibly be the motivation behind such disparate killings?
There was now the arson attack to contend with. Was that too part of the same series of what seemed unrelated crimes? Lazarus recalled his meeting with Lord Urpington Crust and his colleague Tommy Tickleshaft some months ago. Both men were undercover S.I.S agents investigating the illegal and treasonable acts of The East India Trading Company, its Chief Executive Officer, Wynkin de Worde and the criminal activity of its Special Executive and the sinister covert branch, The Brethren.
Initially, The Brethren had seemed nothing more than a lunatic fringe of racists. This was not the case and that idea had been perpetuated so as to mislead anyone who might investigate their real unpleasant activities. Lazarus suspected a smoke screen.
Regus Nasaltwist? What was his part in all this?
Lazarus had been fascinated to learn of this. He had been sworn to secrecy as the whole business was of state security interest. Since then the whole façade of The East India Trading Company’s illicit undertakings had been exposed along with its leaders and the Special Executive. Was this the connection?
Of course, none of this might be connected. The two ‘shears murders’ could very well be the act of a single person. After all, who was Jean Grimstain shouting at prior to her death? Who was the father of her son? Had Jean and Agatha both been blackmailing the same person? If they had then who?
For now, Lazarus decided to work on one case at a time. It was pointless speculating when he had not a shred of evidence to substantiate his suspicions.
Lazarus reviewed the suspects again. Martin Tickpant: what was his connection to Jean Grimstain? Alice Tickpant, Martin’s wife: the woman was an heiress to a fortune. It was money which Martin desperately needed. Was that even relevant? Possibly not. Alice had learning difficulties. It seemed unlikely she would have the capacity to kill someone and besides what motivation could she have?
Doreen Gosling, who was married to Charlie: she was clever enough and he stupid enough but again, what possible motive could they have? The same went for Tracey and Tim Trimeot. Both were capable. Both were smart enough but why would they feel inclined to commit such brutal murders?
Lazarus could not see any link to either these ‘Hand In Glove’ homicides or anything connecting them to the deaths of Penny Farthing, Cooper Kloot or Kevin Migham and nothing whatsoever with the arson attack on Hilary’s lab. And yet there was something niggling in Adam’s mind, something on the periphery of his consciousness. He could feel that awful obsessive nature of his eating under his control.
Lazarus went back to the beginning. Harry Hertlasp killed his boss and wife twenty years ago. Martin Tickpant sold the land, in this order, to Hertlasp, then Agatha Nosebag then Jean Grimstain then to the Trimeots and the Goslings. Harry was now out of the picture but that didn’t bear any relevance. He had murdered two people then fled to Tickpant’s because he had purchased some land which he built a shed on to keep his dirty secrets in. Agatha Nosebag had followed Harry and bought the property from Martin Tickpant. She did this so she could be near to Harry who was a source of income. Had she been blackmailing Tickpant and, if she had, then with what? Jean Grimstain had moved there, having fallen pregnant with her son. What came first, the move or the baby?
The more he puzzled the more elusive the answer seemed. Then, as his brain began to ache, Miles Sundae wheeled himself in. Miles had not been just a great athlete, he also had a sound mind.
“How’s it going?” asked Miles.
“What, the murders?
“It strikes me you have your hands full. Not just one murder investigation but three and then the arson attack. How’s Hilary?”
Adam rubbed his eyes. He felt weary and really wanted to go to bed. He could feel a migraine coming on.
“Hilary is tougher than she looks. She naturally feels upset about Mrs MacCrumpet. Why she feels guilty is beyond me but Hilary is like that. She cares about people, especially those who work with, and for, her.”
“You really like her a lot don’t you?”
“Yes, yes I do. I never thought, not after Debbie, that I could feel this way again. Hilary is very special to me.”
Miles smoothed back his thinning hair.
“I was watching a report on that ‘Hand In Glove’ case of yours on the local news. The presenter was suggesting some form of impropriety between Hertlasp and Dame Fatleaf. Apparently, they used to be seen together in a local pub, The Frog and something or other; I can’t remember its name. He had been having an affair with someone in Fekenham but broke it off when he fell for Fatleaf’s wife. I don’t suppose any of that would be of any interest to you chaps?”
“It would if it had a bearing on the murders but I don’t think it does.”
“There was also mention of, speculation really, the fact that the one of the victims was killed by shears; Joan Grimstain I believe…”
Lazarus interjected, “Jean Grimstain.”
“Yes, sorry, that’s right, Jean Grimstain. She was seen with someone. It was the talk of the village apparently. It was rumoured she had an affair with Martin Tickpant the local farmer and landlord. There was a woman from Fekenham called Millie Meade who stated that the couple had a love child; a boy according to her.”
Lazarus looked as though a light bulb had suddenly been switched on.
“Really? Thanks, Miles. Thanks a lot.”.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.