Poisoned By Yew
“Definitely one for you, darling. Come closer, my sweet.”
I hovered by the door, stifling the urge to gag at the stench as Jack, that miserable excuse for a human being, deliberately emptied the stomach contents into a stainless steel bowl. He may be the best pathologist in the business, but on occasions he goes too far. This was one of them.
I pulled a tissue from my pocket and held it over my nose. “Just tell me how she died, Jack. I'm not in the mood for your childish attempt at humour.”
He wasn't in the least abashed. “Knickers in a twist again, Detective Chief Inspector?” He held the bowl to his nose and sniffed loudly. “Hm. Spag bol followed by strawberry ice cream, unless I'm much mistaken.”
Feeling myself turning green and in danger of losing my breakfast, I leaned against the door jamb for support. “Jack!”
“Oh, all right. Have it your way. You're no fun any more, DCI. I need to do some more tests, but by the distension of her stomach and the inflammation of the mucosae, I'd say she was poisoned.”
I averted my eyes. “How and when?”
“Death within an hour of ingesting yew.”
“Yew? How on earth would a human being ingest yew?”
A broad, self-satisfied grin spread across his face until I yearned to slap him. “Looks like an infusion. My guess is that someone gave her a cup of yew tea, but as you're so fond of telling me, Detective Chief Inspector, you're the cop. I'm merely the pathologist.”
“Well—don't forget it, then!” was the best I could manage as I made a hasty exit.
When I looked up yew poisoning on the internet, I discovered that a few leaves could kill a cow in less than eight hours. Since our victim was not much more than five foot three and weighed a mere six stone, I imagine a nice mug of herbal tea proffered by a friendly peasant would offer her little chance of longevity. The poor kid probably lived just long enough to stagger into the churchyard, which I guess is a sensible enough place to end your days.
But who would want to murder young Cherry Pye, and why?
I started with her last foster home, where loud, thumping music could be heard from upstairs. Mabel Poynter was a pillar of the local church. As well as fostering three teenagers, she was what's known these days as a 'worship leader', which means she led what passes as church services in trendy places, accompanied by drums and guitars and God knows what else.
A middle-aged woman of generous proportions, Mabel's eyes welled up when I broke the sad news. “Not our Cherry! Please, this is a joke, right? Please tell me it's not true .”
“I'm sorry, Mrs Poynter. Can you tell me why you failed to report her missing?”
Her shoulders heaved. “I blame myself. If only I'd rung you people right at the outset, but I didn't want to get her into any more trouble. The courts threatened her with detention if she violated her probation again, and I just wanted to give her another chance. She—um—she had found her way onto the streets, I'm afraid. She made good money out of prostitution and didn't like giving it up when the courts found out she was under age. She resented being sent into foster care, even though we did our best for her. She was a lovely girl, underneath that hard exterior.”
I pictured that frail, vulnerable body on Jack's slab. “Had she gone missing before?”
“She—er—wasn't much of a home bird, to be honest. We did our best, Gavin and me, but it can be difficult when you don't get them until they're teenagers. We really tried. Gave her a lot of love and took her to church with us, just like a proper happy family. She seemed to enjoy the services. They're lovely services, bright and exciting. Just right for teenagers.”
I began to feel even more sorry for little Cherry Pye. “Where is Gavin now?”
“Oh!” A hand flew to her mouth. “He's out looking for Cherry. I'd better ring him.”
“No, don't do that, Mrs Poynter. We'll contact him. I need to speak with your other foster children.”
She started to argue, but a look at my face convinced her otherwise. She heaved herself off the sofa and yelled up the stairs. When that produced no observable result, she plodded up the stairs to reappear a few moments later with two skinny, spotty teenagers in tow.
“This is Mandy—Mandy Sheppard—and this is Jimmy Baxter. Say hello to the Detective Chief Inspector, you two.”
They muttered something indiscernible and sat huddled together on the sofa, staring at the floor.
“Good morning, Mandy, Jimmy. I'm sorry about your friend. Cherry was a friend, wasn't she? How well did you know her?”
They glanced at each and shrugged.
Mabel said, “Cat got your tongues? Answer the Chief Inspector.”
I said, “Mabel, perhaps if we could have some coffee?” I nearly asked for tea, but just in case.
When she'd gone, I prepared for a cosy chat. “I need you to tell me anything you can about Cherry, so that we can catch her killer. Do you know when she left, or why?”
Again, that furtive glance. Then Mandy licked her lips. “She didn't like it here.”
“Why not? Had she been here long?”
The boy snickered. “Too long. She hated it. All that church stuff they make us do, Cherry wouldn't stand for it. Said she had rights—although I dunno what rights you get in care. I never seen any.”
“Anything else? Apart from the church stuff?”
Just then the door opened and Mabel bustled in with the coffee. Mandy clamped her lips tight shut. We drank our coffee in silence, apart from Mabel's inconsequential chatter, but I pricked up my ears when she happened to mention that the churchwarden ran a health store in the church every Wednesday morning.
“So did—what did you say her name was? Ida Trumpington? Did Ida run her health store yesterday?”
Mabel nodded. “It's all Fair Trade goods. Coffee and tea and chocolate. Dried fruit, dates, all sorts of food that can be stored for a time.”
“I see. Does she sell herbal teas?”
Mandy put in, “Yeah, all kinds. We're always getting them. Blackcurrant and raspberry and some horrible stuff—”
“That's enough, Mandy. If the Chief Inspector has finished with you two, why don't you run along?”
She looked inquiringly at me as she said it. I nodded. “I may have to talk to you again, but that's all for now, thank you.”
They left without a word.
Ida Trumpington was a dear. I took to her immediately, although obviously I couldn't let that cloud my judgement. In my job, everyone's guilty until proven innocent. A little old lady with snowy white hair, she had eyes as sharp and bright as a sparrow, and clearly, she loved her church. I asked her about the Fair Trade store.
“It's more of a stall than a store, just a table where I sell Fair Trade goods. It makes a bit of money for the church and it puts cash into the pockets of the growers back in the developing world, rather than into the hands of the middle men. I don't make much, but I enjoy doing it. I meet so many different people, and they all have a story to tell.”
I showed her a photo of Cherry. “Did this girl come to your stall?”
She fetched up a pair of reading glasses, hanging on a cord round her neck. “Let me see. That's the girl with the funny name, isn't it? She hated it. Told me I was the only person who hadn't laughed when she told them her name. Poor little Cherry Pye. She wasn't a happy girl.”
“Do you know why?”
“She lost her mother at the age of twelve. She haunts the churchyard here, where her mother's buried. Why? She hasn't done anything stupid, has she?”
A look of concern filled her face. “I was always afraid—she didn't have the bounce for life that a girl of her age ought to have. It worried me.”
“Ida, are you saying you think she was at risk of suicide?”
Ida hesitated. “Maybe. She hasn't, has she? Don't tell she's taken her own life?”
I patted her arm. “We don't know yet. I'm afraid we discovered her body late yesterday, but we don't know why she died.”
Ida Trumpington's lined face sagged. Then something steely entered her eyes. “I'll help you all I can,” she said. “Have you spoken to the rector? He should be your next port of call.”
The Reverend Simon Shaw was riding round the rectory garden on a mower like a cowboy at a rodeo, a straw boater on his head. Sitting at a wrought iron table watching him, was a middle-aged man with very little hair and a large gut overflowing his belt. He didn't get up as I approached, but shaded his eyes with his hand.
“You must be the cop.”
“I'm a detective chief inspector, yes. And you are?”
He held out a pudgy hand, damp with sweat. “Gavin Poynter, church treasurer and married to the delightful Mabel.”
I suspected sarcasm, but it was difficult to tell. Simon Shaw completed his circuit of the lawn, climbed off the mower, shook my hand and introduced himself, before sinking into the chair next to Gavin. He poured a glass of lemonade from an old fashioned jug with a piece of muslin over the top to deter any marauding insects.
“How can I help you, Detective Chief Inspector?”
“Did you know Cherry Pye?”
He shook his head mournfully. “Terrible thing. Gavin was just telling me. A young girl that age. Terrible.”
“I understand you were her foster father, Mr Poynter?”
“Call me Gavin. Yes, nice girl. Had her hard side, but underneath she was soft as putty. Like a kitten. Sometimes had her claws unsheathed, but didn't mean anything by it. Can't imagine why she did it. We did our best for her, me and Mabel, but sometimes you just can't help them.”
He heaved an exaggerated sigh.
The rector was still looking sorrowful. “Of course, we'll bury her in consecrated ground. Poor Gavin here was worried about that, but the church changed its attitude long ago. We recognise now that suicide is a result of mental illness rather than wilful disobedience to God.”
I looked at call-me-Gavin. “Why do you think she chose that particular method?”
A glint appeared in his eye, but was instantly extinguished in favour of the sad, bloodhound look. “Stand to reason, doesn't it? I mean, her mother. Poor kid. Just couldn't get her mother's suicide out of her brain. Only happened a couple of years ago, so it's still pretty fresh for her. We tried to help, goodness knows, but those claws!”
He gave me a conspiratorial grin. I didn't respond. “How exactly did her mother die?”
He opened his eyes wide, as though surprised that I didn't know. “Overdose, or poison or something. Took something by mouth, anyway. She was dead by the time young Cherry got home from school. History repeating itself.”
“Poor Cherry,” the rector said. “We should all pray for her.”
Terrified that he might want to pray there and then, I leapt up, glancing at my watch. “Goodness, is that the time? I must go. People to see, things to do. Nice to have met you, although not under these circumstances. Please excuse me. 'Bye.”
I returned to the station via the Poynter's house, where I picked up Mandy and Jimmy to take them for a nice ride in the police car. They didn't seem to mind, although Mabel was less than impressed.
“They need a responsible adult with them,” she warned.
“I know that, thank you Mrs Poynter. I'll make sure they have all the necessary supervision, and I'll personally return them unharmed.”
“She seems very concerned about you,” I remarked to the kids as I drove them to the station, but this elicited only a grunt in reply.
They opened up when they were settled in the interview room with a coke, a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar apiece. They seemed quite excited about the prospect of being interviewed by the police, which was a welcome change from the usual surly attitude I've come to expect from teenagers I've picked up.
Cherry had been with them in the Poynter household for about eighteen months. They didn't know where she'd been before that, but she had filled Mandy's head with tales of a life of glamour and excitement on the city streets, and she'd had plenty of money.
“But it all went,” Jimmy whispered, his eyes alive with excitement. “She was in a right temper about that, but she wouldn't tell us what happened to it. We reckon Mabel and Gavin took it for safe keeping. They used to do that. We're never allowed too much at any one time.”
Mandy took up the tale. “Cherry went missing for the first time after that, but they found her and brought her back. She wouldn't speak to any of us for days. The next time, she ended up in court. That's when she was put on probation and the judge said if she did anything else, she'd be sent to a young offenders' institution.”
“That's a prison,” Jimmy clarified for me.
At that moment the door opened, and a young constable handed me an envelope. It contained another, sealed envelope and a piece of paper. The outside of the sealed envelope read, 'Open only when case solved', and the piece of paper had just one word written on it, 'semen'. I rolled my eyes. Jack does so love his little party tricks. I had no doubt the sealed envelope would contain a name, but would it contain the name that was swinging around in my brain?
I turned my attention back to the youngsters. “How long have you two been with the Poynters?”
Again that surreptitious glance at each other. “Since we were small. Before we started school. We haven't been anywhere else.”
“And you like it there?”
Two heads nodded simultaneously, but I had the distinct impression they were hiding something. Never mind. By now I was pretty sure I knew what had happened to Cherry Pye. I ended the interview and drove them home.
Then I made an arrest.
It was late by the time I reached home. The light was on, and the best pathologist in the business was in the kitchen, cooking. I quashed the image of him with a basin of stomach contents, and turned my attention to an excellent meal of carbonara (from a packet), frozen peas, and white wine.
Then, with an air of triumph, I handed him a sealed envelope and held his envelope aloft.
“One, two, three!”
We tore into them in feverish haste. Surprise, surprise, the same name was in each envelope.
“Ladies first,” he said.
“Well, I was suspicious right from the start. Her grief seemed a little out of whack, if you know what I mean. Then when I met him, he knew all about my visit, even though I'd asked her not to contact him. More to the point, he knew how Cherry had died. I hadn't mentioned that. When I spoke to the youngsters, they seemed to be quite open, but I knew they were hiding something. That's the only home they know, and I got the impression Cherry was something of misfit. And the whole family talked too much about Cherry being on the streets. So what I think is this. Call-me-Gavin likes teenage girls, but he's gross—old and fat. I think Cherry went to Mabel, perhaps to blackmail Mabel into handing her money back. Mabel was furious with Gavin, but even more furious with Cherry for 'seducing' him. That was the reason for the emphasis on Cherry being a pro. Mabel forced Cherry to drink an infusion of yew tea, telling her it was good for her and knowing she'd stagger over to the churchyard to be near her mum. Perfect for the tie-up with her mother's suicide.
“Your turn now, clever clogs. How did you work it out?”
He grinned at me in that annoying way he has. “Three things—nearest and dearest, semen, poison being a woman's weapon.” He spread his hands. “Simple when you know how, my dear DCI. The question is, now you've arrested Mabel Poynter, is there any way we could fill in the spare time you have?”
It was my turn to grin. “You're the best pathologist in the business, Jack m'lad. Can't you work it out?”