The suspicious death of Margery White
My name, Inspector, is Violet Peacock. My age? Now, you know you should never ask a lady her age. Shall we say somewhere between 50 and 60? Oh, alright then – 67.
I don’t see why you need to interview me, Inspector. I am not responsible. I cannot be responsible. I wasn’t even in the room when she died.
And as for my finger prints being the only ones all over the plastic bag, well, that must have been when I was trying to pull it off her head. I should have left it on. I can’t get those glazed eyes and that lolling purple tongue out of my head. I dream about it constantly, Inspector. I wish I’d just left her to get on with it.
You can hardly call her death suspicious, Inspector. She was 86. It was a miracle to me she was still alive. She’d been threatening to do herself in for the last 20 years. Now I know I had been telling her, and in public, that if she was that unhappy she should just put a plastic bag over her head, but that was one of my little jokes. I never thought she’d actually do it.
Her carers and I used to have a bit of a laugh about what she would actually die of. She’d had cancer, heart problems, pneumonia, but she’d survived all of them thanks to our wonderful NHS.
Yes, I agree I did send an e-mail to my family and friends saying ‘At last the old crow has snuffed it,’ but you didn’t know Aunt Margery like I did, Inspector. That woman terrorised my childhood. My brother and I had to go and spend the summer holidays with her when we were growing up. My mother said it was to cheer her up because she had no children of her own, but if she was cheered up, she certainly showed no signs of it. Jack and I had to be seen and not heard at table, not speak till we were spoken to, and in bed at 7. After Jack died I was her only surviving relative, Inspector, and did she remind me of that often enough. ‘You’re my sole beneficiary,’ she used to say to me. ‘I suppose it would be better for you if I was dead.’ I never agreed with her, not once, though I often felt like it. I just smiled nicely at her, and said, ‘Of course not, Aunt Margery.’
It was unfortunate that her carers never came that last month (some mix-up with the bank saying the standing order had been cancelled) but I couldn’t do anything about it as I was on my world cruise at the time. But, but, and I can’t emphasise this enough, Inspector, I wasn’t the sole beneficiary in her will at all. She’d left money to her neighbours, her cleaner, and even to my two children, who’d only ever visited her when I held a gun to their heads. Oh no, that’s another little joke, not really.
I bet I got less than the minimum wage for all those hours and hours I spent with her, Inspector, listening to her whining and moaning. You wouldn’t have liked her. She was a snob. She wouldn’t have given you the time of day. She told the doctor she was surprised he’d done so well, considering he was foreign. She was a nasty woman. She didn’t deserve to live, and that’s the truth.
Coming back to the plastic bag, Inspector, I know it was a BHS plastic bag, and I do in fact buy most of my clothes from BHS (Margery preferred M &S), but I don’t think that proves anything. In fact, if anything, it proves she was trying to implicate me in her suicide, devious old witch that she was.
Alright, Inspector, you can just put those silly old handcuffs away. I’ll come quietly. But I ask you, Inspector, wouldn’t you have done the same?
It’s a hoary night, Swarovski bright, slush frozen into dirty ruts.
You greet me with madrigals and wine the shade of lust or open wound.
Dowland laments the fickle blooms of April, May, dusting lawns
with broken promise. And this won’t do – these fleeting aches and sorrows,
My love, my love, o woe, my love.
No. Turn down the lights for I would be beautiful for you in half shadow.
Play Moondog’s slithery rhythms, a soundtrack of city streets
– tube train, siren, an urban heartbeat, for who wants to die in 3 or 4/4 time?
And if tomorrow will bring stronger claims or failing vigour,
then hold tonight and slow these hours to be our universe.
Chart the flow and thrust of love, raise each nerve to such a pitch
each strum of hand or tongue releases psalms and hallelujahs.
Gloria, Gloria, O Ave Maris Stella. Amen.
We will die and die and breathe again.
Her song swims just under the skin, bonelocked,
an echo caught by the inner fluid of the ear,
a memory of baroque violin – its counterpoint
lulls and soothes until you stand beside a lake
of dark water, the leaves of last year,
acer, whitebeam, beech soft beneath your feet.
Her hair unfolds a skein of silk through gentle currents.
She smiles, her body loose beneath the surface.
Her hand breaks the membrane to the world of air, beckons;
come, come, forget the crimes of love
the slow death of hours
dance with me, swim with me
The colonel, when he came to meet her in the military hospital lobby, was younger than she’d expected and he wasn’t in uniform, wasn’t even wearing a tie, just a mustard yellow, v-necked pullover.
She felt his eyes on her as she turned away to pick up her coat and bag and follow him through the keycode doors and along a squeaky windowless corridor. At its far end was a big service lift. He pulled the metal grid back and directed her into the lift with a sweep of his arm.
She stood at the controls, hovering her finger over the buttons.
“Where to colonel?”
Again, that appraising glance
“This one”, and he leant forward to press the bottom button himself before moving across the lift to stand diagonally opposite her. When she caught his eye from beneath a dipped head, he finally smiled and looked almost awkward for a moment before he spoke,
“Nervous? Though that’s a silly question to ask you I suppose”.
The question remained unanswered as the lift juddered to a halt and two uniformed soldiers were standing, now opening the grill and saluting them as they came out.
“It has to be down here, for the sound and light insulation, though we’re quite well appointed” he apologised. “Teak toilet seats and carpeted throughout – it doubles up as some kind of bunker for top brass but you didn’t hear me say that”. It reminded her of nothing so much as a series of crypts with the arched ceilings and the side corridors and doors to chambers coming off them that fanned out around her. But it was furnished, done out like a plush inter-war hotel with red carpets and little wall sconce lamps casting a yellowish light over everything. A world away from the white and steel labs where she had been tested. They paused in front of a black metal door; he placed his hand on the doorknob.
“Emotional problems turn into violent actions and our concern is to see how they will come out”.
“I know”, she said, “and I’ve heard that before”.
“Patricia Highsmith”, he said, “you’re quite right, not my words”.
Seeing her blank look he added, “She’s a crime writer. So if you have heard it, it’s not from one of your first year Introduction to Psychology lectures in case that’s what you thought.
“Sit down, I’ll be back when it’s over” – he indicated a high-backed armchair in the middle of the room facing the far wall where she sat and the lights dimmed around her and some traces of music, somewhat incongruously, struck up quietly.
She noticed the wall she faced glint and slowly acquire texture and realised it was a sheet of glass. Water lay behind the glass wall with a single shaft of white light piercing it vertically. She looked up just as he dived in, leaving a column of silver bubbles running the twenty-foot pole of light up to the surface. He was wearing tight, black, thigh-hugging trunks and his back was to her as he dove, but then, like a swallow dive in slow motion, he twisted forwards towards the glass towards her, to hang suspended barely six feet in front of her and met her eyes and smiled, gently rotating his hands and he was lovely, like a beautiful marble statue made alive. She held a hand out towards the glass and he mirrored the movement. The golden curly hairs on his forearm stood on end and his lips had a bluish hue – cold water. She smiled and he moved his head back in pleasure as if in response then he started slowly, slowly to move backwards, away from her, and up.
It was a cheap trick, she reflected, to use the ‘colonel’ – to have placed a preformed association in her head.
She mimed stroking his cheek and he lifted his own right hand to his face in response, then touched his mouth. She couldn’t help it, her lips tingled in response.
What was it called, when we derive pleasure from our seemingly active gaze?
“Scopophilia” she said aloud and placed her hands in front of her face and wove them around in the air. He rode the ripples she was making and continued to gaze deeply into her eyes and she felt as though an elastic ribbon connected them. Some force was beginning to draw him away from her back into the dark well of the water, up and away leaving a trail of silver bubbles from each nostril.
She stood up.
“No” she shouted and pulled her hand. And he jerked back downwards again; shock, then a smile again on his face as he shrugged, and mimed his helplessness at her through the glass. As he immediately began to move upwards again she gave another tug with her hand and this time the look on his face was his own fear and pain. So she let go.
When a door to the side of the glass wall was opened by a rather shocked-looking young corporal to reveal the colonel dripping and retching on his hands and knees she just laughed with her hands on her hips.
“You deserve an Oscar”.
The voice came from an older man sitting in a dark corner of the side room,
“He’s not acting. Welcome to Drone Control and the world of virtual warfare– you’ll do”.
Murder in the Library
Mrs. Emily Peacock Deputy Director of the Institute Library smoothed down her skirt and straightened the jacket of her navy blue suit. She had been trying to contact her boss James Mustard all morning; but he had not answered his phones or replied to the email she had sent. She decided to pop back to the reading room to see if he as there; he sometimes disappeared into the shelves pursuing his research interests. He had nothing in his diary but it was possible that he was off somewhere at a meeting or networking with his many contacts. James could be a bit of a mystery man. He had got the funding for the new institute special collections store, which had been a great coup for the library of a small research institute, so she couldn’t really criticise his methods.
She closed her office door and walked into the reading room, Scarlett Smith the young library assistant was sitting at the desk. Scarlett was a recent graduate. She had the round rosy cheeks of a country girl which contrasted oddly with the hardcore hipster style she affected.
“Scarlett, has James been in?”
Scarlett flicked her chaotic blonde hair out of her eyes and looked over her dark framed glasses.
“No, I haven’t seen him all morning.”
“Is Anne about?”
“She’s working in the shelves.”
Emily didn’t like to think what Anne White was doing in the shelves. She always seemed to be pursuing mysterious projects of great urgency which left her stressed out. This was something Emily knew she should deal with but the right opportunity never presented itself. Anne had enormous knowledge of the Institute’s rather obscure collections. She knew things about the material that couldn’t be traced through a catalogue or an index. The students and researchers that used the Institute library really appreciated the service she gave them.
Emily noticed a pile of slips on the desk in front of Scarlett. She picked them up and flicked through them. They were requests for rare items from the special collections store for a researcher who would be coming in that afternoon. She sighed. Anne shouldn’t have just left these.
Emily walked around the shelves to where Anne was working on the books. Anne was a thin, anxious looking middle aged woman dressed in limp colourless clothes.
“Anne, we need to get these items from the store for Professor Plumb, he’s coming this afternoon.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that I have too much to do here.”
Anne blurted this out in a loud tense voice as if she was frightened. This took Emily aback. Normally Anne liked nothing better than a trip to the store to retrieve items from among the Institutes priceless manuscripts. Anne looked so disturbed Emily decided not to push it.
“OK, don’t worry, I’ll send Scarlett. Can you go and take over from her on the desk, please.”
“But we haven’t got any readers in yet.”
“We’re open. We need someone there if a reader comes in or the phone rings.”
Anne sighed at being parted from her beloved collection by moving to the desk. Sometimes Emily thought Anne valued books more than people.
Scarlett set off to the store with the slips in her hand. It had taken her a depressing few months to get this job after graduating. Being a library assistant at the Institute wasn’t her dream job but she was luckier than many of her contemporaries.
The Institute was housed in a Georgian house and the store had been built in the garden. It was a large black-walled presence about a storey high and taking up about half of the original garden. It had been opened about eighteen months earlier and used the latest technology.
The whole space was a vacuum when it was sealed and the shelves could be moved back and forth electronically on rails to make the maximum use of space. They only visited the store once a day to avoid constantly releasing the vacuum. Often they didn’t go there for days on end when there were no requests for material from special collections.
Scarlett quite enjoyed visiting the store. It combined something of the romance of technology in the way it was organised and of scholarship in the collections it housed. However she did find the silence and the low light, necessary for the preservation of the manuscripts rather eerie. As she walked along she sorted the slips into order so she could retrieve the items quickly.
In the small lobby she pressed the big red button that released the vacuum. She waited while the air hissed in. Then she opened the inner door and entered the store. She couldn’t see clearly in the low light. She pressed the buttons that would open the area of shelving she needed to get to first. The shelves didn’t move. She could hear the machinery humming but nothing was happening. She also noticed that as well as the sound of the motors there was a kind of wet noise. As her eyes adjusted to the light she looked down the aisle, about half way down she thought she could make out something on the ground. She walked done the aisle. Crushed between the stacks was James Mustard Director of the Institute Library. His round normally florid face looked grey and his smart military style blazer was covered in blood. Scarlett screamed.
Born 1980 to an army family, based around the world and eventually in Germany, relics of post war, imperialism, close to Berlin, a haunt for Russian players. She was baptised Helen Morris
Helen’s father, a major, held diplomatic parties and as she developed from a leggy and uncoordinated teenager to a leggy, vaguely attractive woman, she wondered what she was going to do with her life. Camp school in camp settings had not inspired her to do well at school and wet holidays in Wiltshire had left her equally uninspired.
At sixteen she joined the rafting and rowing club to assuage her parent’s anxiety as they didn’t understand how a daughter of theirs could be less hale and hearty than them. Also there was little else going on.
Her friend Marcel, Marty who had been in her class for the last three years encouraged her and reluctantly she capitulated, bought a wet suit, went through the safety training and said never again.
Helen did go though, and surprising had a talent, became strong, tanned and fit. At her parent’s official engagements, men noticed her and her parents noticed that she was noticed,. They were pleased
There was one, a Litvinshenko, handsome, blond, Russian who courted her gently, drew her into his realm, she was alarmed, yet flattered, especially because there were murmers of both his possible unusual connections and air of worldly confidence that Wiltshire and her education had not endowed her.
School ended and without exacting qualifications, she had little to offer. Lit listened and spoke about his new purchase, a gym attached to the newly emerging and franchised Kings Cross development, a converted warehouse, built to high spec but she must take the YMCA fitness programme as a personal trainer. He’d pay, organise her qualification, find her somewhere to live, help her manage London life and as they say’ what’s not to like.’
Her qualification arrived with Cassandra James as the name. It wouldn’t matter he said, she could be known as Cassie and she’d get used to the name. Eager to set off, Helen morphed into Cassi and started work, which to her surprise was enjoyable.
Her new home was not what she expected but a narrow boat on the Regents Canal. Charming and untraceable. ‘Keep quiet about where you live or the others at the gym will pester you, want to crash and I Lit want to see you, alone.’
And he did, buying her clothes, admiring her devolving, honed body, wrapping her in silk and champagne. Cassi began not to know herself and embrassed her new condition, sloughing off her family and previous friends. She became anonymous, the way he liked it.
Lit found her ready for his society, a woman used to the social nuances of diplomatic parties, able to smile, move from person to person, aware of her impact, the admiring glances with her blond, marcelled waves, wasp waist, silk clinching her fit buttocks, lifted on Labouttin, effortlessly. Never staying with one person long enough to be engaged with other than pleasantries.
Lit was pleased with the result and he began to ask for small, apparently innocent favours, which she willingly did. Delivering parcels to embassy staff, taking interesting cakes to addresses in Notting Hill Gate, entertaining male visitors in increasingly explicit clothes, red being the predominant colour, a scarlet woman.
Lit became less than attentive, the more she did for him, and less than careful about her’ customers’. He became more absent and her visitors more frequent, yet she kept the faith until an unscheduled visit to the gymnasium, distressed her more than she thought it would. Ms Scarlett, her virtual double was being suggestively disrobed, lowly squealing, ardour in the executive area. Cassi slunk into the night, the air was sharp and still, her breath laboured.
Cassie’s senses alert, keaner than she had been for months as she realised her worth discounted, lingered on the tow path, carelessly secured the boat.
It was 2am, he lurched from path to boat, rattling the lock, making an entrance, smug, his empire cloned and growing
Cassi had processed her diminishing worth, yet was not prepared for this visit, this intrusion. There were two entrances and exits and earlier she noticed a heavy, unusual tool lying on the edges of the towpath.
She crept out, gathered it with her honed strength. He stood bemused on the front deck, wondering her disobedience and didn’t hear the swing of Thor. He felt his head sledged, slammed as he slid beneath the murky but not too deep waters.
Cassi casually gathered her personal important items together, especially the passport that held her name, Helen Morris and caught an early morning train to Wiltshire.
Kate buttoned her coat against the cold wind, pulled her cream woolen beanie over her ears and liberated her long hair from her coat. Her green Wellingtons offered little protection against the cold pavements but would keep her feet dry and stable over the remaining ice.
Feb 29th. One of her father’s few birthdays. How old did that make him? She needed to get to the British Library and spend an hour or two on her research before catching the train from St Pancras to Dorleywood. But first she wanted to look around a little. The Horse Hospital. A good start. Inside she found an exhibition of undistilled creepiness. Morton Bartlett, creator of life-size pre pubescent dolls, his fixation documented by a series of black and white photos. Little plasticized faces smiling and gaping, their soft lips slightly parted.
Kate Metcalf, criminologist, peered round the corner of a fenced off staircase and found herself startled by a model of a naked woman with a horses head.
Cutting round the corner, she promised herself a quick look at the Crypt of St Pancras Church. As she approached the stairs to the crypt, her phone rang.
“Hi mum. I hope he got the card. Listen, I’m going to the BL. A bit of research time and a quick look round the crime-writing exhibition. But I’m coming up this afternoon. Everything ok?”
A look of distaste crossed her face.
“Coffee with the vicar, eh? Since when have you been religious?”
They were talking about the Reverend Wintergreen, vicar of St Michael’s. There was something not very nice about him, for a man of God.
“And who else? Sounds like it’s been all go. Anyway, see you later.”
With that, Kate made her way down the stairs and into the cold air of the vaulted brick crypt to the exhibition.
A film of a slow swimming siren caught her attention, the dreamy swimmer floating naked in an arched alcove. Propped headstones added their timely words, tucked away between the exhibits.
“Harry Metcalf b February 29th 1890- d February 29 1944. A coincidence, if you believe in such things.
By the exit, Kate stopped to look at an untitled portrait of a topless girl smoking a pipe. It was almost as though she could smell the tobacco. There was something about the picture that looked eerily familiar. The woman in the painting bore a very marked resemblance to Kate’s former roommate Scarlet Underwood – could it be her? It had her flamboyance, her ease with her own body. The pipe smoking theatricality.
Kate left, noticing a man in a black padded jacket with a camera and a long lens slung around his neck. Hadn’t she seen him before, at the Horse Hospital?
She needed to get to the BL, mustn’t be late, mustn’t let father down.
As she approached the library she pause. wondering if she shouldn’t skip the research for today and just get the train before the day edged away. Feb 29 – you had to seize them or they’d disappear for another three years.
She walked briskly to St Pancras. The departures board showed a train in five minutes. Just enough time. She called her mother but there was no answer from the mobile.
Mrs. White, the cleaner answered the house phone. Kate could hear her wheezing. Maybe she’d interrupted a cigi break.
“Is mum around?” she asked.
“No love. I think she might be in the garden with the Prof.”
“The Prof?” questioned Kate
“Yes, Professor Plum isn’t it?”
“Mrs. White, can you tell her that I’m on my way. I’ll be there in around 45 minutes.”
Professor Plum. Emeritus Mathematics Professor, Oxford. Kate sometimes wondered if he had a crush on her mother. They’d certainly known one another a long tome. He was her tutor apparently, although a failed mathematics degree seemed a strange background for a successful career in films. The posters of her mother’s glory days were in the family archive trunk and one or two pictures framed and hung on the wall. A very glamorous woman.
Kate looked out of the train window. The ground was still frosty along the railway cuttings. It soothed her to see the ordered allotments and tidy houses with glimpses of faces at windows and children in back gardens
The train ground to a halt. Was it Pinner? The platform was empty save for a man in a padded jacket, a camera slung round his neck with a long lens.
Just a few more stops. The familiar bargeboards on the platform at Dorney wood reminded her of bygone times. A bit Famous Five perhaps. She felt secure seeing it. A world away from criminolgy.
Kate stepped off the train and walked to the minicab office at the side of the station. The driver opened the door for her. “Grange Road please.”
“OK” he said and drove off, accelerating hard.
She sensed something wrong even as she approached the house. The door was open but banging softly in the cold breeze. Cigarette butts outside the back door signaled that Mrs White had been there earlier. Some leaflets with details of church events and service times had been left on the shelf by the front door, by the Reverend Wintergreen.
Kate breathed deeply and entered the kitchen. Her mother was sitting in a chair at the kitchen table. She was wearing a peacock blue cardigan over a printed dress, a kitchen knife protruding from between her shoulder blades.
She walked through, hardly daring to stop. The Cluedo game had been removed from the cupboard in the dining room and the board was open on the table, the cards removed.
A large yellow cross had been scrawled over the board and the words “Try the greenhouse.” The quickest way was through the study, but the door was locked. Kate retrieved a spare key from her bag. Her father’s computer was open at a page of complex mathematical equations, which appeared to be an extract from an academic paper submitted to an academic journal by Professor Plum. Nearby, her mother’s diary lay open at Feb 29. The only appointment read “TBC lunch with Scarlett (Underwood.) Here?” And, almost as a footnote ‘H’s birthday. Kate to visit?”
Forcing the door to the garden open Kate walked into the garden and across to the greenhouse. Her beloved father Harry “The Colonel” Metcalf, had been strangled by a length of copper wire. His signature mustard cashmere jumper was soaked in blood and he lay sprawled across the greenhouse floor with a broken tomato plant spilling its soil where it had been knocked to the ground.
The long game had come to an end. But who was the winner?
Astrid Sutton Sharkey