19

After the commotion of the previous night, the next day started off like any other. That was what struck me, later. I should have known from experience that catastrophe doesn’t announce itself in advance. But when it came now I was completely unprepared.

Like everyone else.

It was almost four o’clock before the police had finished at the surgery. They’d descended on it like a fury, taking photographs, dusting for fingerprints and asking their questions. Mackenzie had arrived looking tired and frazzled, like a man recently woken from a bad sleep.

‘Go through it again. You’re telling me someone broke into the house, took a slice at you and managed to get away, without anyone getting a look at him?’

I was tired and irritable myself. ‘It was dark.’

‘So there was nothing familiar about him?’

‘No, sorry.’

‘And there’s no chance you could identify him again?’

‘I wish there was, but I’ve told you, it was too dark.’

Henry had been equally unable to help. He’d been in his bedroom all the time, unaware of anything until he’d heard the commotion and emerged to see me returning from my abortive chase. If things had gone differently, Manham might have been waking up to hear of another murder. Perhaps even two.

Judging by Mackenzie’s attitude as he questioned me, he thought that was the least we deserved. ‘And you’ve no idea what else he might have taken?’

I could only shake my head. The drugs cabinet was undisturbed, and nothing was missing from the fridge where we stored the vaccines and other temperature-reliant medicines. But Henry was the only one who knew what was in the cluttered glass display case, and until the forensics team had finished with it he couldn’t say for sure what was missing and what wasn’t.

Mackenzie squeezed the bridge of his nose. His eyes were red-rimmed and angry. ‘Chloroform.’ He sounded disgusted. ‘I don’t even know if you’ve broken any laws having something like that on the premises. I didn’t think doctors used it any more.’

‘They don’t. It was just a curio of Henry’s. There’s even an old stomach pump in there somewhere.’

‘I wouldn’t care about a stomach pump, but this bastard’s dangerous enough as it is without a bottle full of bloody anaesthetic!’ He stopped himself. ‘How the hell did he get in here anyway?’

‘I let him in.’

We both turned as Henry came through the doorway. We were in my office, one of the few downstairs rooms where we knew we wouldn’t compromise any evidence, as I locked it every night. I’d insisted that Henry have a break from the questioning. The break-in had badly rattled him, and he hadn’t improved after almost an hour of interrogation. He seemed a little recovered now, although his colour still wasn’t good.

‘You let him in,’ Mackenzie repeated flatly. ‘You said earlier you didn’t know anyone was in the house.’

‘That’s right. But it’s still my fault. I’ve been thinking back, and…’ He took a deep breath. ‘Well, I… I can’t seem to remember actually locking the kitchen door before I went to bed.’

‘I thought you said it was locked.’

‘Yes, I assumed it was. I mean, I always lock it. As a rule, that is.’

‘But not tonight.’

‘I’m not certain.’ Henry cleared his throat, his discomfort painful to see. ‘Apparently not.’

‘And what about the cabinet? Was that unlocked as well?’

‘I don’t know.’ Henry sounded exhausted. ‘The keys are in my desk drawer. He might have found them, or…’ His voice trailed off.

Mackenzie looked as though he were trying hard to keep hold of his temper. ‘How many people knew about the chloroform?’

‘Lord knows. It’s been here longer than I have. I never considered it a secret.’

‘So anyone who came in here could have seen it?’

‘It’s possible, I suppose,’ Henry conceded, grudgingly.

‘This is a doctor’s surgery,’ I told Mackenzie. ‘Everybody knows there’s going to be dangerous substances here. Tranquillizers, sedatives, whatever.’

‘Which are supposed to be locked away,’ Mackenzie said. ‘The bottom line is this man was able to just walk in here and start helping himself.’

‘Look, I didn’t bloody invite him!’ Henry flashed. ‘Don’t you think I feel bad enough already? I’ve been a doctor for thirty years, and nothing like this has ever happened before!’

‘But it happened tonight,’ Mackenzie reminded him. ‘The one night you forgot to lock the door.’

Henry looked down at his lap. ‘Actually… it might not be the only time. There have been a couple of occasions recently when I’ve… I’ve got up and found the door still open. Only one or two. I generally remind myself to lock up,’ he added, hurriedly. ‘But… well, lately I seem to have been getting a bit… forgetful.’

‘Forgetful.’ Mackenzie’s voice was toneless. ‘But this is the first time anyone’s actually broken in, is it?’

I was about to answer for Henry, say that of course it was. Then I caught his anguished expression.

‘Well, I…’ He crossed and uncrossed his hands. ‘I’m not sure.’

Mackenzie continued to stare at him. Henry gave a lost shrug.

‘The thing is, I suppose there have been a couple of times I thought the cabinet seemed… rearranged.’

‘Rearranged? You mean things were missing?’

‘I don’t know, I was never very sure. It could have been my memory playing tricks.’ He gave me a shame-filled glance. ‘I’m sorry, David. I should have told you. But I hoped… Well, I thought if I made more of an effort…’

He lifted his hands, let them fall helplessly. I didn’t know what to say. I felt worse than ever for forcing him to stand in for me recently. Apart from his disability, I’d always thought of him as being physically sound. Now, in the early hours of the morning, I saw signs I’d overlooked before. There were hollows under his eyes, and the skin around his silver-stubbled chin and neck hung loosely. Even taking into account the shock he’d had, he looked ill and old.

I caught Mackenzie’s eye, willing him not to push too hard. Thin-lipped, he led me aside, leaving Henry to sit disconsolately with a cup of tea a young policewoman had made for him.

‘You realize what this means?’ Mackenzie said.

‘I know.’

‘This might not be the first time this has happened.’

‘I know.’

‘Good, because your friend over there could be looking at losing his licence. It’d be bad enough if it was just junkies, but this is a serial killer we’re talking about. And now it looks as though he’s been able to waltz in here and help himself for Christ knows how long!’

I stopped myself before I could say ‘I know’ again. ‘He’d have to have some medical knowledge to know what to take. And how to use it.’

‘Oh, come on! The man’s a killer! You think he’s going to worry about giving the right dose? And you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know what to do with chloroform.’

‘If he’d been in here before why didn’t he take the entire bottle?’ I asked.

‘Perhaps he didn’t want anyone to know what he’d taken. If he’d not been surprised tonight we wouldn’t have found out now, would we?’

I’d been unable to argue with that. I felt as culpable as if I’d been the negligent one instead of Henry. I was his partner, I should have been more aware of what was going on. Of what was happening to him.

Finally, the police had done as much as they could, and I’d gone home. The dawn chorus was already starting when my head touched the pillow.

Almost immediately, it seemed, I was awake again.

It was the first time in days that I’d had the dream. It had been as vivid as ever, but for once it hadn’t left me with a renewed sense of loss. I felt saddened but calm. Alice hadn’t been there, only Kara. We’d talked about Jenny. It’s all right, she’d told me, smiling. This is how it should be.

It had seemed almost like a leave-taking; long-delayed but inevitable. Yet the memory of Kara’s final words, delivered with the slight furrow of concern I knew so well, had left a lingering unease.

Be careful.

But of what I should be careful, I didn’t know. I puzzled over it for a while before realizing I was only trying to analyse my own subconscious.

It was just a dream, after all.

I got up and showered. Although I’d only been in bed a few hours I felt as rested as if I’d just had a full night’s sleep. I set off early for the lab so I could check on Henry on my way in. I was worried about him after what had happened the night before. He’d looked awful, and I couldn’t help but feel responsible. If he hadn’t been so tired from all the extra work I’d forced on him he might not have forgotten to lock the surgery door in the first place.

I let myself into the house and called him. There was no answer. I went into the kitchen but there was no sign of him there either. Trying to ignore the prickle of unease, I told myself he was probably still sleeping. As I turned to leave the kitchen I glanced out of the window and stopped dead. Across the garden I could glimpse part of the old wooden jetty where it jutted into the lake. Henry’s wheelchair was on it.

It was empty.

I ran out of the back door, shouting his name. The entrance to the jetty was further down the garden, obscured by shrubs and trees. I couldn’t see onto it until I reached the gate, and then I slowed, relieved. Next to the empty chair, Henry was perched precariously on the jetty’s edge, trying to lower himself into the dinghy. His face was flushed with effort and concentration as his legs dangled uselessly over the boat.

‘For God’s sake, Henry, what are you doing?’

He flashed me an angry look but didn’t stop. ‘I’m going out in the boat. What’s it bloody look like?’

He was grunting as his arms took the strain of his weight. I hesitated, wanting to help him but knowing better than to try. At least if he fell in now I was there to drag him out.

‘Come on, Henry, you know you shouldn’t be doing this.’

‘Mind your own bloody business!’

I stared at him in surprise. His mouth was set but quivering. He carried on with his futile attempt for a moment longer, and then the struggle abruptly went out of him. He sank back against a wooden post, covering his eyes.

‘I’m sorry, David. I didn’t mean that.’

‘Do you want a hand back into the chair?’

‘Give me a minute to catch my breath.’

I sat down next to him on the rough planks of the jetty. His chest was still labouring, his shirt stuck to him with sweat. ‘How long have you been here?’

‘I don’t know. A while.’ He gave a weak smile. ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

‘Henry…’ I didn’t know what to say. ‘What the hell were you thinking of? You know you can’t get into the boat by yourself.’

‘I know, I know, it’s just…’ His expression darkened. ‘That bloody policeman. The way he looked at me last night. Spoke to me, like I was some… some senile old fool! I know I made a mistake; I should have checked the locks. But to have someone patronize me like that…’

He stared down at his legs, mouth tightening.

‘It gets frustrating sometimes. Feeling helpless. Sometimes you feel you’ve just got to do something, you know?’

I looked at the flat, deserted expanse of the lake. There wasn’t another soul to be seen. ‘What if you’d fallen in?’

‘Then I’d have put everyone out of their misery, wouldn’t I?’ He glanced up at me and gave a sardonic grin, looking more like himself. ‘Don’t look at me like that. I’m not planning on topping myself just yet. I’ve made a big enough fool of myself for one day.’

He pushed himself upright, grimacing with the effort.

‘Help me back into that bloody chair, will you?’

I got my hands under him, supporting his weight as he levered himself back into the wheelchair. It was a sign of how tired he was that he made no objection when I pushed him back to the house. I was already late for the lab, but I stayed long enough to make him some tea, and to satisfy myself he was all right.

He yawned and rubbed his eyes as I stood up to leave. ‘I’d better get myself ready. Morning surgery starts in half an hour.’

‘Not today. You’re in no condition to work. You need to get some sleep.’

He cocked an eyebrow. ‘Doctor’s orders, is it?’

‘If you like.’

‘What about the patients?’

‘Janice can let them know it’s cancelled this morning. If it’s urgent they can call the out-of-hours service.’

For once he didn’t argue. Now that the frustration had left him, he looked drained.

‘Look, David… You won’t tell anyone about this, will you?’

‘Of course not.’

He nodded, relieved. ‘Good. I feel stupid enough as it is.’

‘There’s no need.’

I was at the door when he called me back.

‘David…’ He paused, embarrassed. ‘Thank you.’

His gratitude didn’t make me feel any better. As I drove to the lab I was uncomfortably aware of how much extra pressure I’d placed him under lately. I’d been taking him for granted, not only in terms of the practice but in other ways as well. I wished now I’d made the effort to go out with him on the lake, or just spend more time with him. But I’d been so wrapped up with the investigation, and even more so with Jenny, that I hadn’t spared much thought for Henry.

That would change, I resolved. I’d done nearly as much as I could in the lab. Once I’d given Mackenzie my findings it would be down to the police to try and make some use of what I’d told them, and I’d be able to make amends for my recent neglect. After today, I told myself, my life would be back to normal.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After the turmoil of the past twelve hours it was almost a relief to get back into the clinical sanctuary of the lab. Here, at least, I was on surer footing. The results of the analyses had come back, confirming what I’d guessed already. Lyn Metcalf had been dead for approximately six days, meaning her killer had kept her alive for whatever unholy reason for nearly three before slitting her throat. That was the wound that had killed her. Like Sally Palmer, the desiccated state of her body revealed that she’d bled out. And the low iron content of the soil around the body again showed that her death had taken place somewhere else, her body taken to the marsh and dumped afterwards.

Also, as with Sally Palmer, there had been nothing found at the site to indicate who might have done this to her. The ground was baked too hard to yield footprints, and except for the rope fibres caught on her broken fingernails there was no trace evidence, no forensic clues left as to the killer’s identity.

But that was for someone else to worry about. My own contribution was almost finished. I took final casts of the cervical vertebrae that had been cut by the knife, more certain than ever that the two women had been killed by the same weapon. After that there was nothing more to do but clean up. Marina asked if I wanted to have lunch to mark the occasion, but I declined. I still hadn’t had a chance to talk to Jenny, and all at once I couldn’t wait.

I rang her as soon as Marina had left. As I waited for her to answer my excitement was so keen it hurt.

‘Sorry,’ she said, out of breath. ‘Tina’s out and I was in the garden.’

‘So, how are you?’ I asked. I felt suddenly nervous. I’d been so busy contemplating my own navel I’d not stopped to consider what conclusions she might have reached herself about our relationship.

‘I’m OK, but how are you? Everyone’s talking about what happened at the surgery last night. You weren’t hurt, were you?’

‘No, I’m fine. It was worse for Henry.’

‘God, when I heard I thought… well, I was worried.’

It had never occurred to me that she might be. I wasn’t used to having to consider anyone else. ‘Sorry. I should have called earlier.’

‘It’s all right. I’m just glad you’re OK. I would have called you, but…’ I tensed as she paused. Here it comes. ‘Look, I know we said we were going to take a couple of days, but… Well, I’d really like to see you. If you want to, I mean.’

I found myself grinning. ‘I want to.’

‘You’re sure?’

‘I’m certain.’

We both laughed. ‘God, this is ridiculous. I feel like a teenager,’ she said.

‘Me too.’ I glanced at my watch. Ten past one. I could be back in Manham by two, and evening surgery wasn’t until four. ‘I could come round now, if you like.’

‘OK.’ She sounded shy, but I could hear the smile in her voice. A two-note chime sounded in the background. ‘Hang on a sec, someone’s at the door.’

I heard her put the receiver down. I leaned on the edge of the workbench, an idiot grin still on my face as I waited for her to pick it up again. To hell with giving ourselves space. All I knew was that I wanted to be with her right now, more than anything I’d wanted in a long time. I could hear the radio playing in the background as I waited. It was longer than I’d expected before I heard the phone being picked up again.

‘Milkman?’ I joked.

There was no answer. I could hear someone breathing at the other end. Deep and slightly rushed, as though after some exertion.

‘Jenny?’ I said, uncertainly.

Nothing. The breathing continued for one, two beats. Then there was a soft click as the other person hung up.

I stared stupidly at the receiver, then fumblingly redialled. Answer. Please, answer. But the phone rang on and on.

As I broke the connection and started to call Mackenzie, I was already running to the car.

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