Inspector Robert James lay submerged in a dream of achievement and satisfaction, his expression was quite unlike his working face. Daniels would not have recognised him like this. Then his dream was interrupted by the full concert sound of the William Tell Overture. He grimaced as it dulled to the pitifully tinny noise of his mobile phone. Oh no. He reached under the pillow.
“Daniels here sir. It looks like we have a case.”
“Where are you?”
“Prince Henry Hospital.”
Daniels was waiting at the front desk.
“The woman was brought in two hours ago. She died without recovering consciousness. Miranda Fielding, aged 32, married with a nine-month-old baby. Lived out at Hastings. At this stage looks like she was poisoned, but they won’t be sure until the morning.”
“He’s here sir. Ryan Fielding. He brought her in. I haven’t spoken to him yet, but the charge sister says his version is that his wife had dinner at home and was fine until about ten or so.”
“Right. Where’s the rest of the team?”
“In the ward.”
“We’ll talk to the husband. Then they can go over the house.”
Ryan Fielding sat with his head in his hands. He smelt of cigarettes and apart from the slight rise and fall of his chest, was still. He didn’t lift his head when he heard the detectives approach, merely turned it. His face was smooth and blank, and looked as though it never needed shaving.
“Inspector James, Homicide. I have to tell you that it looks as if there may be suspicious circumstances surrounding Miranda’s death.”
Shaking slightly, Ryan stared back at them, “Suspicious? In what way?”
“Officer Daniels will take your details.”
In these cases, James favoured the husband as the most likely suspect. They always had opportunity and often had motive. Who didn’t, in a marriage, at some point? The two policemen left Ryan and moved on to the morgue. She’s done with that body. James closed his eyes and thought fleetingly of his own past. How could he have coped with such a loss? The cold white stillness of the body repelled him. Miranda Fielding had been an attractive woman, but even in his imagination he could not picture her alive.
James and Daniels spent the day interviewing the victim’s friends and family. They were all under suspicion, although they were told that the taking of their passports and cautions not to leave the city without notice were routine police procedure. Later that night the two detectives went over the case. Both agreed that their session with Ryan Fielding had been unproductive. He was in a state of complete emotional collapse. He had been at the Sail and Anchor and had come home at about 10:00 p.m. to find Miranda in extreme distress. Fielding and his wife had been a close, happy couple, delighted with their little boy. Miranda was well-liked and he could think of no one who would want to kill her. Heard that before. Fielding had mentioned Shelley Hall, a friend of Miranda, as someone he had spoken to at the pub at the time in question.
“The one who’s been helping with the baby?” asked Daniels.
“Yes. We’ll tackle her tomorrow.”
James wanted Fielding kept under surveillance. There was no evidence linking him to the crime, but that didn’t concern James. He wanted to know what Fielding would do now that his wife was dead. As usual, James had to argue long and hard with Festus, his immediate superior, before he could convince him that more manpower was needed. Eventually Festus, bald head shining like polished porcelain, allowed him to have Stevens; but he insisted that Stevens, who was being taken off another case, could and would be recalled as soon as he was required elsewhere. James was less than satisfied but accepted that this was the usual situation. There never was anyone available for surveillance. Anyway, in the force doing ‘obbo’ ran a close second in the boring stakes to dealing with paper work and computer screens. James instructed Stevens to shadow Ryan and contact him with regular reports- and to ring immediately if anything unusual happened.
James next turned his attention to Miranda’s mother, Mrs Sontag, whom he and Daniels had interviewed the previous afternoon.
“Do you think there’s any possibility there?” James asked, dropping heavily into his chair.
“I don’t know. She was genuinely shocked by the news,” Daniels said. “I’ll do a bit more digging around tomorrow. How did you feel about the stepfather?”
“Oh, quite uninvolved, I think. Seems a bit hard on his wife. Of course, the girl wasn’t his,” he paused. “Nice house, though, wasn’t it? Beautiful old fireplace.”
“Mm. I wonder how they support that lifestyle. They certainly weren’t on the pension.”
“Tomorrow you can run checks on the whole bunch of them.”
“Right.” Daniels sucked in his cheeks.
“Meanwhile I’ll be sorting out that lot at the pub where Fielding says he spent the evening.”
“And if he and his wife were so close and happy, why was he such a regular at the pub?”
* * * * *
The following day the Sail and Anchor was feral with the news of Miranda’s death. Most of the patrons lived in the local area and such a terrible event provided a focus for conversation, and if it was a ghoulish so much the better. A slim girl with a patchy complexion was cleaning the tables. She had the look of a cheer leader, suddenly surprised at finding herself working as a barmaid. Inspector James walked up to the bar and asked for the publican.
“Speaking,” said the man behind the taps. “What can I do for you?”
“Inspector Robert James, Homicide. ”
“George Barrett,” he said, extending his hand. “Come through. Shelley, mind the bar will you?”
That evening James and Daniels went over the day’s notes as they worked their way through an abundantly unhealthy take-away, washed down by what was left of last week’s cardboard chardonnay.
“Anything interesting from forensics?”
“Nothing unexpected, sir. The fingerprints of the deceased, Fielding, Mrs Sontag, Shelley, and the baby are all over the house. The dishes and utensils Miranda used show the presence of arsenic, the same as Miranda’s stomach contents. Her husband’s dinner, which she had served up and placed in the fridge, was also poisoned. He may have been a potential victim as well. That doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.”
“It will. Do they have any ideas where the arsenic came from?”
“Did anything come out of the checks?” James asked.
“Nothing. Nobody has done anything worse than run a red light.” Daniels paused. “Fielding doesn’t earn all that much, but did you notice that their house seems to have everything? Apparently, there’s a bit of money on her side of the family.”
“Yeah? Dig around – was Miranda entitled to any of that money? If so, who gets it now? Did she leave a will?”
“Right, sir.” Daniels pushed his chair back; it made a thin, scraping sound. “And how did you get on at the pub?”
James stood up and went over to the window. Passing his hand through his thick dark hair he stared at the litter being blown up the wall. “The publican said Fielding was there a lot. Nearly every night after work he’d stop in for a drink and quite often stayed till late. Miranda used to come with him, but not since the baby arrived. The smoke wouldn’t be good for junior. Barrett thought it may have caused some trouble between them, but didn’t really know.”
“And Fielding was there the night of the poisoning?”
“Yes. Both Barrett and Shelley confirm it.”
James mobile rang.
“Stevens reporting in sir. There’s nothing doing. Subject has been at home all day. He has a fire going and is sitting in front of the TV. Shelley arrived early and stayed about 20 minutes. Came out again with the kid, hasn’t come back yet. Apart from that, zilch…… the excitement is killing me.”
“Okay, stay on it.”
Ryan and Miranda. Their baby. Shelley. The Pub. Money. Arsenic. Who would gain from the death of this very ordinary woman?
James mobile rang again. Daniels voice came over the line.
“It looks as though there may be a financial angle here, sir. The mother’s aunt, Rosemary Savage, is quite a wealthy woman. And although she is pretty healthy, she is elderly. And she willed most of her money to Miranda.”
“And now Miranda’s dead?”
“It will go to the mother.”
“Bingo! At least that’s a glimmer of a motive. Keep working on that. Find out if she or anybody else is in the shit financially.”
Motive, opportunity, evidence. The homicide mantra cha cha cha
James knew a bit about arsenic: for example, that many of its compounds will dissolve in water; but wanting to refresh his memory, he brought it up on the web. Apart from its deadly character, in smaller quantities, he read that arsenic “could cause nausea and vomiting and a feeling of ‘pins and needles.’ Contact with the skin may cause a rash and swelling.” Very pleasant. Further, “the main use of arsenic is to preserve wood.” A fat lot of good that is, he thought, unless we discover that someone has a woodyard.
James had a love/hate relationship with the net. In this case, he hated the idea that anyone could find out how to obtain or create arsenic just from going online. The crims had a new ally, one that was easy to use and that would never grass.
Daniels was once again sitting in the lounge room of Mr and Mrs Sontag, Miranda’s mother and step-father. Yes, Mrs Sontag knew all about her aunt’s will. No, she didn’t need any money; they were quite well off. She was still on good terms with her first husband, Miranda’s father, though he now lived overseas. He had been distraught when she had told him of Miranda’s death. Her current husband, Marcus, was retired. He had worked as a stock broker until a couple of years ago, when he had suffered a minor heart attack. Daniels thanked her and left, wishing he had more to go on. This case was frustrating. He headed for the stock market.
At the same time that Daniels was talking with Mrs Sontag, Inspector James was sitting in the Sail and Anchor, inhaling the toxic mix produced by years of spilt alcohol and smoke embedded in the torn carpet. He had been sitting there for two hours, just getting the feel of the place. Of course, everyone knew he was a copper, but they all expected some attention from the police after a murder. The media had been round as well. George had been interviewed on television. The pub was famous. James had not been surprised at the way the regulars had closed ranks around Ryan, not saying much except to confirm that he had been there on the night of the murder. Now James was waiting for Shelley to arrive and start her shift. According to George, she had worked there for the past year, was a good worker, and had befriended both Miranda and Ryan. Barrett considered Ryan a bit of a weak bastard but nothing worse.
The door opened and Shelley came in bringing with her a whiff of exhaust fumes and the sound of traffic. She must have returned the baby then, so why hadn’t Stevens rung? Shelley went behind the bar and started stacking glasses. One of the others spoke to her and she looked over at James, sitting at his corner table. James carefully avoided looking her way, but watched her in a small mirror he had placed before him. He thought she looked worried and as if she had been crying, but she smiled brightly as one of the regulars beckoned her. His mobile rang. It was Stevens. Fielding had left the house on foot. Good! Miranda’s mother had walked up to the house shortly before Shelley arrived with the baby and was still there. Stevens was following Ryan - he was going in the general direction of the Sail and Anchor. Did James want him to continue?
“Yes. I’m at the pub now. Wait until Ryan enters the pub, but don’t follow him in. Wait for me just around the corner.”
James’ mobile rang again. It was Daniels this time.
“Well, a little dirt is turning up. It seems. . . “
But James cut him off. “I’m at the Sail and Anchor. Can you meet me just around the corner?”
“Okay. See you in ten.”
James saw Ryan come in and nodded to him. Ryan returned the nod and went up to the bar. He spoke to Shelley who glanced over a James. Ryan lit a smoke and looked away. James waited a minute, then paid his tab and went outside. Stevens, whom none of them had seen before, went in as James went out.
Daniels and Stevens were waiting when he got to the corner. The three policemen spoke in low voices in a quick exchange of information. Daniel’s visit to the stock market had been fruitful. He told James that Mr Sontag’s investment record (which he had been able to access) hadn’t shown much profit. One of the officials had described it as ‘pathetic.’ Daniels had also picked up that Sontag often had a flutter on the gee-gees and enjoyed presenting a prosperous facade when he attended the races. Then James sent Stevens off to learn what he could at the pub.
It was the following morning and Stevens was giving his report, fussing a little with a feeling of self-consciousness.
“I was there until closing time and it was pretty ordinary. A lot of people seemed to know Ryan and chatted to him throughout the evening. He spoke to Shelley, but always in a manner that was consistent with the situation.”
“Did he appear worried or upset?”
“Not really. But he’s seen me now. Do you want me to keep following him?”
“No. Festus is threatening to recall you. I don’t like taking you off Ryan but I need you to get over to headquarters and dig up everything you can on Rosemary Savage and her great-niece, the dear departed.” He blew out his cheeks. “We really need someone to cover Fielding as well, but you know how it is.”
“I’ll be off then,” Stevens went out the back way to avoid going past Festus’ office.
James considered his options Time was passing and they were getting nowhere. “Daniels, do you fancy a day at the races?”
“What’s your idea?”
“See if you can run into Mr Sontag, just by accident. Let him think we’re dropping the investigation due to lack of evidence.”
“But really we need more information. Just see if you can get him talking about the family, finances, anything.”
“And what about you sir?”
“I’ll be talking to his wife.”
James stood on the stylish doorstep of Mrs Sontag, ringing the bell. There was no answer. Quite possibly Mrs Sontag was at Ryan’s, looking after the baby. He decided that he would go round there and talk to both her and Ryan.
A few minutes later James was knocking on Ryan’s door but the only answer was a baby’s faint cry. Certain that Ryan wouldn’t leave the child alone, James started walking down the side of the house. “But I love you!” The voice came from the back veranda. “You must know that now.” It was Shelley. James froze, suddenly making the connections.
A man’s voice replied, “What do you mean? You mean it was YOU. . . “ Suddenly the voice roared ‘WHAT DID YOU DO?’ and James recognised Ryan.
“If I waited for you, the kid would have been in high school before anything happened!” She sounded furious. “I’m sick of waiting!”
“Are you insane? You killed her? You could have killed me as well!”
“But you’re never at home - you never eat there! Now we can be together!! You said that was what you wanted!”
“NO, not like that……..I can’t believe you killed her.” James held his breath.
James heard the sound of a chair being pushed back abruptly and of glass breaking. There was a barely audible murmur, followed a hoarse sob. He ran swiftly around the corner to see Ryan standing dumbly in a clutter of glass shards from a broken patio table. Shelley was on her knees, looking up at Ryan, as blood flowed down over her breast and dripped onto the tufts of grass below. James called an ambulance, then gently pulled Shelley down onto her side.
With a jerk, Ryan pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it over the gash.
“Don’t leave me,” she breathed, “I love you.”
There was silence, the sort of silence that is experienced after a sudden downpour, as each stared at each other with new eyes.
“Shelley Hall, I’m arresting you for the murder of Miranda Fielding. . . . . ”
* * * * *
After Shelley’s arrest, everything else fell into place. Shelley had met Ryan at the pub and decided that he was the one for her. He was bored at home and they soon began an affair. She made friends with Miranda and pretended a great fondness for the baby, giving her a point of entry into Ryan and Miranda’s lives. She had obtained the arsenic by soaking wood that she bought for the fire; she then boiled the water until only the residue was left. She had added it to Miranda’s curry when she was there in the afternoon. Shelley’s ‘patchy’ complexion was the result of handling the arsenic. It was an easy matter for her to ensure Ryan came to the pub that evening and to keep him there until what she considered to be a safe time.
Shelley would recover from her injury and be tried. James knew that they had had an easy result, and wondered how long the case would have taken if he hadn’t been in the right place at the right time. Not that anyone was really concerned about that – they had a result and that was what mattered.
And then he thought of Miranda’s cold, rigid body as he had seen it in the morgue; he
thought of a baby robbed of its mother, and a mother robbed of her daughter. And then
he longed for his bed and turned his steps toward home.