“Got another stiff for you—from that church.”
Jack had a grin the size of Norfolk. I clenched my fists in my efforts to maintain a poker face, but he just laughed. “Thought that would surprise you, Detective Chief Inspector! Never say I don't give you anything.”
“I'm not entirely sure a second dead body counts as a gift, even for a homicide detective. But thank you for your kind thought, Dr. Death. I'll be sure to reciprocate—probably in kind, so watch your back.”
At that he laughed even louder, and despite myself, I couldn't help grinning.
“Bet I solve it before you do,” he scoffed.
“You're on. Fifty says I get there first.”
“Last of the big spenders, DCI? If you promise to spend it on something black and lacy, I might even let you win.”
I threw a spare kidney dish at him, which he caught with one hand. Not only the best pathologist in the business, he was also a former county cricketer, a fact he rarely allowed me to forget. I tossed my head and strode out. No time to lose.
“Mrs Frobisher—Diane—I'm so sorry for your loss. First your husband, and now your daughter. I can't imagine how you must be feeling, but unfortunately I do have to ask you some questions, and every second counts. Is that all right?”
She nodded, but she was still in shock and I had the feeling she had no real idea what was happening. The Reverend Enoch Williams slid a protective arm around Diane's shoulders and clutched her hand more tightly. She didn't seem to notice, perched in brittle stillness on the edge of the brown leather sofa.
I lowered my voice. “Diane, can you think of anyone who would want to harm Chelsea? Did she have any enemies? Former boyfriends, anyone who was jealous of her position at the hospital? She was awfully young to be a consultant, wasn't she?”
Diane shrugged. Her faded blue eyes were distant and she seemed to be having difficulty focusing.
Reverend Williams said, “Can't these questions wait? I knew Chelsea as well as anybody—she was my churchwarden after all—and I can assure you she was universally loved. She was a good Christian girl. It must have been a random attack—someone off the street who happened to wander into church at the wrong moment.”
Girl? She was at least thirty-two. Random attack? I stifled the urge to laugh at his naïvety. “Why would a stranger choose to harm her, Reverend?”
His smile froze as his complexion turned a deeper shade of puce. He retreated into bluster. “The safe is in the vestry. Perhaps he thought he could get at money, perhaps she caught him breaking in and stopped him. Perhaps he didn't like the look of her. Perhaps he was a pervert—I don't know! You're the detective, you work it out.”
He glanced at Diane, but she failed to respond other than to push back behind her ear a strand of straying grey hair, with a sudden, impatient gesture.
I moistened my lips and deliberately addressed myself to her. “You see, Diane, in my line of work we're always suspicious of coincidences, and it is a huge coincidence that your husband and your daughter died in the same week.”
It was harsh, but it brought a puzzled frown to her brow. “Chelsea was hit on the head. Robert died from a heart attack. How can they possibly be connected—other than the family connection, of course?”
“Chelsea was Robert's step-daughter, I believe? Did they get on? Any problems between them?”
A small shudder ran through her slender frame and her voice was bitter. “As you well know, Chelsea inherited from Robert. He left me the house for my lifetime and a small allowance, but the bulk went to Chelsea, plus this house when I go. Does that answer your question?”
I raised my eyebrows but forbore to comment. It sounded like an odd arrangement, but now was not the time to probe. All the same, I wondered whether the only relationship between Chelsea and Robert was step-daughter and step-father, given that Robert was ten years younger than his wife. And who inherited now that Chelsea was dead?
I turned to the rector. “Reverend Williams, I know you've already answered questions about Robert Frobisher's death, but indulge me.” I added a winning smile but the rector was unmoved, so I ploughed on. “Did you see him collapse? Did anyone else touch the organ console? Did you notice anyone dusting the keys afterwards?”
“Dusting the keys?” He stared at me as though I was mad. “When our organist had just dropped dead? We were all far too busy calling the ambulance and praying for poor Robert, to be concerned with cleaning. And yes, as a matter of fact I observed it all. Robert had just sat down at the console, changed his shoes—he wears special shoes with thin soles so that he can feel the pedals—and unlocked the lid. He placed his hands on the keys to start playing and that was it. A mighty crash as his head hit the keyboards, and he was gone. We dragged him off the stool and laid him on the floor in order to begin resuscitation, but it was no good. The paramedics were there within ten minutes with their electrical apparatus, but to no avail. It was shocking.”
My lips quirked at the unintentional pun, but I kept my expression suitably sombre. “Who helped to lift him from the organ stool?”
He began to count off on pudgy fingers. “Well, let's see. There was Andy Grossman—he's my other churchwarden, Chelsea's counterpart—Jane Hillier, my curate, Bob Hunter, the verger—he has arms like an ox, he's a gardener—and Tony Lessing, the treasurer. Oh, and poor Chelsea herself. Naturally, she was very upset. Fortunately not many of the congregation had arrived. Robert always starts to play—used to start to play—fifteen minutes before the service begins, but most of the congregation arrive within the last few minutes.” He added this with a sort of sniff, making clear his opinion of those who arrived at the final moment.
“I shall need a list of all their names and addresses. Who closed the organ?”
“What?” He looked confused. “I've no idea. Why? Is it important?”
“I'm afraid it is.” I looked at Diane. “Your husband didn't die from natural causes, Diane. We have evidence to suggest he was murdered.”
“Murdered?” All colour left her face and her mouth opened wide.
I thought she was going to faint, so I kept talking in a low, even voice. “We have evidence to show that your husband died from acute mercury poisoning. We believe dimethyl mercury—it's a colourless liquid, so undetectable apart from a very slight sweet smell—was painted on the organ keys. It's highly toxic and absorbed through the skin. Did either of you notice anyone wearing thick gardening gloves immediately prior to the service?”
They looked at each other and shook their heads. The rector said, “You could ask Bob. He'd notice anything like that, being a gardener himself. Anyway, I don't see what any of this has to do with poor Chelsea being hit on the head.”
I stood up. “We're working on that. Thank you both for your time. I'll see myself out.”
The interview hadn't got me much further, and to make matters worse, the next time I saw Jack he held up a pair of frilly black knickers, about the size to fit a flea.
“I'm nearly there,” he taunted, “so I thought I might as well start on the shopping.”
I glared at him. “If you think I'm wearing those, you've another think coming. As I've told you before, Dr. Death, you stick to your forensics and let the detectives detect, if you don't mind.”
He chortled at that, but apart from telling me there were no unexpected fingerprints at the scene of either crime, refused to share any further information with me.
My team worked hard over the next few days, questioning all those who were present at Robert's death, and any who had access to the vestry, where Chelsea had been killed by a blow to the back of the head with—yes, you've guessed—a heavy brass candlestick.
We unearthed some interesting facts. Bob Hunter, the gardening verger, had several pairs of thick gardening gloves and some face masks, as well as mercury compounds used in fertiliser, stashed away in his shed. He claimed to have forgotten about the fertiliser, which he last used about forty years ago, but since the shed was neater than my kitchen (okay, that's not saying much) I hesitated to believe him. We took the lot away for Jack to analyse.
The curate, Jane Hillier, soon became what we call in the trade a person of interest. Around forty-five years old, tall, strong, and somewhat austere in manner, she had changed careers after experiencing some kind of religious conversion. Prior to her training at theological college and her first post here as curate, she had been a chemistry teacher in a girls' high school. She was terrifyingly religious—not too surprising, I suppose, given her calling—but that kind of fanaticism worries me. She told me a shade too quickly that she never liked Robert Frobisher.
“He was a control freak,” she snapped. “Practically ran the church. Everyone walked on eggshells around him. Pandered to his every whim.”
“And he refused point blank to play anything modern. I ask you! How can you expect to get new people into church if all the hymns are pre-1930? I'm sorry he's gone and all that, and I'm holding his widow very much in my prayers, but to be honest with you, Detective Chief Inspector, we're going to be a whole lot better off without him. He was a very unpleasant man. Not a proper Christian.”
I blinked. “I see. Does Reverend Williams share your views?”
She snorted, reminding me for a moment of the chestnut filly in the field next to our home. “He'd never admit to it. Claims to like all that old stuff, but the church is half empty. How he gets on in his chaplaincy at the university, I'll never know! He'll soon change his tune though, when the church starts filling up with new families learning to love the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour.”
Her auburn eyes glittered fervently and I took a step back. “You taught chemistry to 'A' level prior to your vocation to the priesthood? What do you know about dimethyl mercury?”
“Highly toxic. There was a famous case of a research chemist in 1997, Karen Wetterhahn. She took all the proper precautions, but a few drops of the stuff dripped onto her latex glove. She was dead within six months.”
“The effects are not immediate, then?”
“Can be. Depends how much is absorbed. One spray would be sufficient for instantaneous death. Why are you asking me all this?”
When I told her, she folded her hands, lifted her eyes to heaven and started to pray. I beat a hasty retreat.
Andy Grossman, the other churchwarden, had the usual cautious air of any successful solicitor, but he answered my questions willingly enough. “I was at the other end of the church preparing to hand out hymn books when I heard the crash. I and Tony—that's Tony Lessing, our treasurer, he's a farmer—helped to lift poor Robert from the stool and lay him on the ground. Then we did mouth-to-mouth and heart massage. We didn't let up until the ambulance arrived. It was too late, though. He'd already passed on to his heavenly home.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Did you notice who closed the organ?”
“Well it might have been—no, he was over the other side—perhaps it was—but it can't have been, can it? I'm sure Chelsea would have remembered. Such a terrible thing. She was so clever, you know. Very observant. Chelsea would have noticed, but I'm sorry. I'm afraid I didn't, I was too busy. She did look kind of quizzical, though, I do remember that. Chelsea, that is.”
He smiled, so I smiled back. “That's all right. Tell me, is Tony Lessing still farming?”
“Oh yes. He has that big grain farm to the east of the village. They export everywhere. He's very successful, but I'm afraid he didn't much care for Robert. None of us did; he was a difficult man. He and Tony had a big argument, everyone heard it. Robert accused him of price fixing and not unnaturally Tony became very upset. It was becoming so ugly I was forced to intervene and warn Robert of the slander laws. It was only a week before Robert died, so I expect Tony feels bad now.”
Especially if he murdered him. “Thank you, Andy. You've been most helpful.”
Back at the station I did my best to avoid Jack the pathologist—he was the last person I wished to see—but inevitably he tracked me down, this time waving in my face a frothy black bra which would barely hold a couple of walnuts. His eyes were gleaming.
“Don't get your hopes up,” I told him. “It's not over yet. I'm on the point of obtaining a confession.”
“And just how, sweetie pie, are you planning to do that?”
Corny, I know, but I tapped the side of my nose. “You don't deserve it, but because I'm a truly lovely person, I'll tell you anyway. I'm having an Aggie Christie showdown at six o’clock tonight.”
He roared with laughter. Wiping the tears from his eyes he spluttered, “No, come on, Miss Marple. Tell me what you're really doing. You haven't any idea who did it, have you?”
I smiled. “The murderer will be in custody by—” I glanced at my watch, “—six-thirty tonight. And then, my dear Dr. Death, you will definitely need to watch your back.”
They were all gathered in the vestry when I arrived at six, Diane Frobisher, still pallid but a little more in control of herself, Jane Hillier and Enoch Williams, Tony Lessing, Andy Grossman, and Bob Hunter. They were nervous and wide-eyed, which was to my advantage. It was a gamble, but I reckoned any churchgoer with two murders on his or her conscience would be only too ready to spill the beans and cleanse the soul, given enough pressure. Choosing the venue of the vestry, where the second murder took place, and within sight of the organ console was, though I say it myself, an act of genius guaranteed to unsettle. The atmosphere was charged.
I began without preamble. “You all know why you're here; because every one of you is a suspect in the murders of Robert Frobisher and his step-daughter. Do any of you wish to tell me anything?” I stared at each of them in turn, but they all dropped their eyes.
I let the silence linger until they were clearly uncomfortable, then I said, “Very few murders are committed without cause, so our primary focus has been to look for motive. All of you here had some sort of motive to murder Robert Frobisher, and since the poison was applied to the organ keys well before the start of the Sunday service, you all had opportunity.”
They all looked resentful at this unwarranted impeachment of their Christian characters. Some of them gasped. Andy Grossman showed a fighting spark. “I don't think I had a motive, and anyway, what about Chelsea? Presumably the same person committed both murders, so what would be the motive to murder her?”
I extinguished the spark. “Chelsea was killed because she saw something incriminating. As a doctor she was trained to be observant—you told me so yourself—and she saw something which puzzled her. She spotted one of you closing the organ lid while everyone else was attending to Robert. With a poison so toxic, it was essential that the organ lid be closed before anyone else touched the keys. Since Robert was assumed to have died from natural causes, there was plenty of time to come back later and clean the keys properly. I think Chelsea confronted the murderer here in the vestry, and was killed to prevent her talking.”
Jane Hillier was still glaring daggers, and even Enoch Williams looked hostile.
I pressed my advantage. “I understand you're married to a pharmacist, Mr. Grossman, so you'd know all about poisons and their effects. That puts you in the centre of the frame. As for you two,” I turned my attention to Tony Lessing and Bob Hunter, “you both deal with fungicides. You, Tony, had a row with Robert shortly before his death, and you, Bob, had all the equipment necessary for Robert's murder. Mind you,” I swept the rest of them with a stern gaze, “any one of you could have rifled Bob's shed and used his stuff.”
“What about me? I presume I'm some sort of suspect too?”
“You certainly are, Reverend Hillier. You made no secret of your dislike of Robert Frobisher, and until recently you taught chemistry. Oh yes. You're definitely there. And you too, Reverend Williams, with your background as chaplain to the university. It wouldn't have required too much ingenuity to snaffle a sample of dimethyl mercury from the labs. And from all accounts, Robert Frobisher held some sort of power over you.”
The rector said, “You surely can’t suspect Diane of killing her own daughter?”
I thought carefully before I answered. “I'm afraid Diane had the best motive of all—money—that, coupled with a growing hatred of her husband and resentment of her daughter's relationship with him, puts her high on the list.”
By the hostile glances and the jutting lips, I could sense they were at the point of exploding with righteous indignation, so I played the joker. I swung round to face the grieving widow and mother.
“Diane Frobisher, I am arresting you on the charge of murder. You have the right to remain—”
“Stop it at once! Stop this farce. Diane is completely innocent. I killed Robert Frobisher, and his step-daughter.” The Reverend Enoch Williams stepped forward, his face pale but determined. He turned to Diane with a look of anguish. “Don't you see, my darling, I had to do it. That hateful man—I couldn't watch you suffering any longer. And knowing that your own daughter was colluding with him—it was too much. I've loved you for so long, Diane. I did it for us. I'm sorry about Chelsea—she was a good churchwarden and a good doctor—but she knew too much and she was cheating on you with your own husband. That sort of evil has to be stamped out. You do see that, don't you?”
By the look of horror on Diane Frobisher's face, I doubt she saw anything. And I doubt his feelings had ever been reciprocated. The others were all regarding him askance, with similar expressions of incredulity and disgust. I arrested the Reverend Enoch Williams and took him away without any sign of a struggle.
Later that evening after supper I found myself clad only in a pair of very brief, black lacy panties and a minuscule black bra. But I got my own back, for my husband was stripped down to nothing but a union jack thong. They say husband and wife teams shouldn't work together, but I don't know. I think there's something to be said for it after all. Especially when you're married to the best pathologist in the business.