Part of the problem is that I've been painting intensively for weeks and weeks, practicing a new oil painting method. The only writing I've done lately has been in my head. I always think about the ongoing literary effort when I've put my light out at night. I have good ideas after midnight, being a night bird. But the effort of thinking about what to write next is also soporific. For instance, in my new book, which might never see the light of day but is fun to write, I've got one of my main characters into a conundrum not even she can solve, despite her detecting talents (growing as the book lengthens!). FAQ (every night for about a fortnight): How do I explain how a corpse is found in a store changing room and then lands behind a container outside behind the store mid-afternoon without anyone noticing. I know there's a simple answer somewhere. But if I shift the corpse out of the changing room before its demise, my heroine (Cleo) can't more or less stumble over it. So up to now I've got it being carted down an outside fire-escape by someone. Here's a short except from the book. It transpires that the dead woman lived opposite Cleo's mother (Gloria). Actually it's a continuation of the book available on obooko.com. I developed some really good characters and didn't want to desert them. Maybe I'll join this (episodic) novel to the first one one day and try to get it published properly. Who knows? Robert is Cleo's partner. Jay is Cleo's gangster ex husband. Cleo is a librarian. Robert has a butcher's shop.
The chapter is headed "Gloria gets into the act" and it's the first draft.
Cleo didn’t think she could do anything for the poor woman lying discarded in the back yard of Milson’s, which claimed to be a fashion store with a difference that probably didn’t include itinerant corpses. Having explained the situation to the police and given them her phone number, she made her escape before someone from the press turned up, having no desire to be connected with the case since that would mean barrages of questions from all and sundry at the library. It was now late and she was only just in time to get a lift home from Clare, who was very curious to hear what Cleo had bought, but instead got to hear about the reason Cleo had not got round to buying anything after all.
Robert had cooked the dinner and was extremely relieved that Cleo was not anxious to play at detecting. He did not really approve of this streak in her personality. Quite apart from the danger she might get into, any case she had been involved in up to now had proved very time-consuming and exhausting and his work left him no time to help her. But once Cleo had told him of the events so far, it was clear that she was going to leave it to the police to find out the facts. Since it was probably a murder case, that was the most sensible solution.
Unfortunately the police had no immediate success with the identification of the dead woman, so the press photographer was allowed to publish a very sharp image of the corpse on the front page of the morning paper. At about half past seven the following morning, just as Cleo and Robert were about to have breakfast, the phone rang and a very agitated Gloria shouted ‘Have you seen this morning’s paper?’ down the line.
Cleo switched the phone to loud so that Robert could listen in.
‘No, mother. Not yet. I’m just getting up.’
‘Well, look on the front page because the woman in the photo is, or rather was my neighbour.’
Cleo’s heart sank. She had made a big effort to put yesterday’s events out of her mind, but it wasn’t to be. If Gloria had recognized the woman, then she would have to identify her and Cleo was sure she would be expected to provide moral support. Robert handed her the newspaper. Sure enough, it was yesterday’s corpse spread over holf of page one.
‘You could be mistaken.’
‘No way. she lived directly opposite in that old house. It’s divided into apartments and that woman lived on the ground floor.’
‘Are you quite sure? What was her name?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve only been living in that street since I came back from the States. You know that. I never saw her with anyone and the few times we talked together she had a foreign accent and was quite unfriendly. As if she would have preferred not to talk to me right then.’
‘I know exactly how she must have felt.’
‘This is serious, Cleo. I always had the feeling she was looking around, like she was afraid of something, and before you ask, I did take a look at the names on the mailbox flaps and there was none on hers.’
‘How did you know it was hers?’
‘Because the bottom mailbox flap belongs to the bottom apartment, of course.’
‘Not necessarily, Mother.’
‘And there was no name on it because the woman did not want people to know she lived there. She was scared of something, Cleo.’
Gloria was probably imagining things, but telling her that would enrage her. Cleo was not anxious to deal with Gloria’s tantrums. She could still remember the way her mother had championed Jay.
‘She probably had good reason to be, considering what happened to her. You’ll have tell the police all of that, mother. You’d better go there rightaway.’
‘On my own?’
‘Can’t you come with me?’
‘Do I have to?’
‘You could remind me of what I’ve just told you.’
‘Are you scared, too, Mother?’
‘Just imagine whoever murdered the woman saw us together and then saw me walking into a police station!’
‘If I tag along, that will only make things worse. After all, I did spot the corpse first.’
‘You did? You didn’t tell me that.’
‘I didn’t want to bother you. I called the police and left.’
‘So what now?’
‘If Clare can manage at the library I’ll be glad to come with you. I’ll ask her and phone you back. And we’ll meet inside the police building.’
So much for not getting involved, thought Cleo. Robert just shook his head. Gloria had a talent for getting into the thick of things. But Cleo might just be able to prevent things escalating. After all, Gloria had no evidence and certainly no proof that the dead woman was anything other than a harmless immigrant.
‘I’ll run you down there when you’ve organized Clare.’
Thanks. Clare was as usual cooperative. A few minutes later she and Robert were driving into Middlethumpton in Robert’s white delivery van.
‘But this doesn’t mean I approve,’ Robert told Cleo.
‘I know that. But what else can I do?’
‘At least you’ll get to know more about the case. Just promise me you won’t delve deeper.’
‘I don’t want to delve deeper. This is in a different category from donation box theft and lost umbrellas, Robert. I just want to get Gloria out of that police station as fast as I can.’
Robert was not convinced. He dropped Cleo off and drove back to Upper Grumpsfield. It was high time he opened the shop.
As arranged, Gloria was waiting impatiently at the information desk. She was holding the newspaper.
‘Did you tell the officer why you’re here?’
‘Not yet. I thought I’d wait for you.’
Cleo explained briefly and Gloria showed the officer the photo.
‘Just a moment, please. I’ll contact the detective in charge of the case.’
A few minutes later Cleo and Gloria were sitting in one of the interview rooms. Cleo had met the detective in the store yard so there was no need for a preamble. She introduced her mother as a witness in the case.
‘I know it’s a huge coincidence,’ Cleo said.
‘It’s a small world,’ said Gloria.
The detective turned to her.
‘So you know the woman?’
‘Not really. The way neighbours get acquainted, you see...’
‘But you recognized her from the photo.’
‘You’d better look at the corpse, just in case.’
‘I was afraid of that,’ said Gloria. ‘I’m not good at corpses.’
‘Nobody’s good at corpses, Mrs Hartley. But this one’s in quite good condition. You won’t have nightmares or anything.’
The two women followed the detective to the lift and they went down about 3 stories into the bowels of the earth to the pathology lab.
A rather officious looking young woman in a white overall with a lethal looking knife in her hand wanted to know why they felt they had to take up her valuable time.
‘It’s all right, Grace. this won’t take a minute. Where did you put the Milton corpse?’
‘On the slab. I’ve just started my examination.’
‘If you’ve been chiselling away can you go first and cover the body except for the head?’
‘I didn’t know you were squeamish.’
‘I’m not, but these witnesses might be.’
‘OK. Give me a few seconds.’
Grace marched ahead and seconds later shouted the all clear.
Gloria looked briefly at the woman’s face then nodded.
‘That’s her, for sure. She looks older dead.....’
‘And you don’t know her name.’
‘Her name? ‘
‘Can’t remember? But at least we now have an address for her.’
The detective thought Gloria might be a little senile. He wasn’t good at guessing people’s age, but some people lost their minds early, so knowing it wouldn’t be of any use.
The detective nodded briefly to the pathologist, who was dying to get on with the job.
‘Thanks, Grace,’ he said and gestured to Cleo and Gloria to move away from the slab.
‘We’ll go back to my office for a moment, shall we?’
‘I really should be at library now,’ said Cleo. The smell of formaldhyde was assailing her nostrils. What a place to be in all day, every day.
‘Oh, do you have to?’ Gloria sounded disappointed.
‘I work there, Mother, you know that.’
‘But we could have breakfast together. You have a canteen here don’t you Sergant?’
‘No, mother, not now.’
‘Detective Inspector, actually. Hurley is the name.’
Well, Mr Hurley, that’s a really nice name....’
‘I’ll show you how to get to the main exit.’
Glora seemed rather put out. Detective Inspector Hurley smiled inwardly. Witnesses sometimes made things up if they thought it would make them more interesting. The detective was sure Gloria was like that. Rather garrulous, even theatrical, he conjectured, liked upstaging people, as she had just done to her daughter. Cleo had just rolled her eyes in his direction. She was probably used to being upstaged. But in fact, Gloria had been quite deferential by her standards. Once back on the ground floor, she led the way to the main exit, waving briefly over her shoulder as if it had been a social occasion.
The detective decided to phone Cleo later to find out what else her mother knew but hadn’t divulged. For now he would just get on with having the dead woman’s flat examined by forensic experts. He might even go along there himself.
While Cleo spent the day working as usual, Gloria had quite different plans. Deducing, quite astutely, that the police would now move into the dead woman’s flat to find clues to her identity and the motive for the crime, assuming it was a crime, Gloria sat at her own window observing the house opposite. Sure enough, hardly an hour had past since she got home when a police car drew up and the forensic experts went into the house. Gloria threw on a coat and dashed across the road. They had left the front door open. She would try to get into the flat. She had her excuses ready. She had been invited to coffee, seen the door open and wondered if something had happened.
She was in luck.The door of the woman’s flat had been left open and she could hear voices. While the investigators sang to the pop music blaring out of a radio in the front room, she was able to go into the bedroom at the back, where she immediately searched through the drawers of the little bedside cupboard. She didn’t know what she was looking for, but she was intrigued by what she perceived to be a first class mystery and guided by the countless crime series she had viewed on TV. Maybe there would be a diary. Lots of people kept diaries and most of them wrote them up at bedtime. She was in luck. She pocketed a small notebook just in time before one of the forensic experts entered the room and got the fright of his life.
‘I expect you’d like to tell me what you’re doing here,’ he said.
‘The door was open. I’ve come for morning coffee,’ Gloria improvised.
‘Oh really? In the bedroom?’
‘Well, I.... Sometimes my friend gets up late.’
Since the investigator had no reason to suspect Gloria, he excepted her explanation at face value. After all, the forensic department were called to the scene of a crime after it had happened, when as likely as not anyone involved would have long since left.
‘You’d better come with me and I’ll take your fingerprints, though. If you’ve touched anything, we need to rule them out. Apart from which, you are loitering under suspicious circumstances.’
Who are you, anyway? Do you have any means of identification?’
Gloria was horrified. She hadn’t given a thought to the possibile illegality of her actions. Her handbag was across the road in her flat. She told the investigator that she had been concerned for her friend because she hadn’t heard from her for days. That explanation seemed to satisfy him. Actually, he couldn’t be bothered with this rather flustered intruder. He had a date that evening, so the sooner he finished the job here, the better.
‘Paul Hurley will be here any minute. You’d better wait for him, then you can tell him all that and take him to your flat. That will verify the truth of your story, Mrs....’
Gloria felt a rush of panic.
‘Team leader. I’m not in charge of the investigation. I’m just collecting the evidence here. ’
‘Do you know Paul?’
‘Only in passing,’ was the best Gloria could do without getting into even deeper hot water.
Gloria’s fingerprints were still being taken when the detective arrived.
When he saw Gloria, he froze.
‘Why, Mrs Hartley. I didn’t expect to find you here.’
‘The door was open. I just thought...’
‘....you’d do a bit of investigating?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘You’re trespassing, Mrs Hartley.’
‘Don’t be hard on her. She was anxious about her friend,’ the investigator told him in her defense, or maybe because the whole team had been unaware that she was there at all.
‘Don’t make me laugh. She doesn’t even know her name.’
‘Yes, I do. It’s Sandra. Sandra Rossi. ’
‘So why didn’t you say so at the station, Mrs Hartley?’
‘I was upset when I saw her lying dead like that. My mind just went a blank.’
Paul Hurley didn’t believe her. Witnesses could be really obstructive sometimes. He wouldn’t accuse her of lying, however. After all, something else might occur to her that was important for his case.
‘Well, run along, then. I expect we’ll see each other again before long.’
Gloria was glad to get out without further questioning. She made her way back to the flat in a deliberately casual way so as not to arouse further suspicion. She had the dead woman’s diary in the inside pocket of her jacket. It had told her the woman’s name. Maybe it would reveal other secrets. It did not occur to Gloria that she might be in any danger.
Paul Hartley didn’t feel the need to explain how he knew Gloria Hartley. Forensic investigators did not need to know everything.
‘Did she take anything?’ he asked.
‘I shouldn’t think so.’
‘But you’re not sure.’
‘You don’t even know how long she’d been here before you caught her, do you?’
‘We had the radio on.’
‘And the door open. Don’t you guys ever think beyond your sticky tape? The woman lives across the road. I’d better follow it up. Just carry on here, but behind closed doors, if you woudn’t mind.’
Paul Hurley crossed the road and rang Gloria’s bell.
Gloria had hidden the diary behind the dry goods in her kitchen cupboard as soon as she got home. She wasn’t really surprised to see the detective at the door.
‘What a surprise! Won’t you come in?’ Gloria hoped she sounded casual.
‘Were you expecting me?’
‘I think you know more than you told me at the station.’
‘No really. I was just curious.’
‘Curiosity killed the cat, Mrs Hartley.’
‘I just wanted to see how Sandra lived.’
‘Why didn’t you give me her name earlier?’
‘I told you that already. I was so shocked to see her lying there that it slipped my mind.’
Paul Hurley still didn’t believe Gloria. Was she involved in the woman’s death? Surely not, but he’d keep an eye on her, he decided.
‘Well, I won’t keep you then, but if anything else slips back into your consciousness I’d be glad if you called me.’
Not until the forensic team had completed their investigation, drawn the curtains behind the window facing the street and left with all their equipment did Gloria stop observing the house opposite from her window and risk taking the diary out of its hiding place. She would have to surrender it, she supposed, but not before she’d read it. She was sure her fingerprints would be on on the bedside table. It was only a matter of time before Paul Hurley got to know about them. She would ring Cleo for advice. Cleo would know what to do.
Apart from the owner’s name, there was very little to go on in the diary. Sandra Rossi was obviously not a diarist. She had made notes of various appointments and there was a short list of phone numbers at the back, but nothing much else. Maybe she would simply dispose of the little book rather than hand it in. When asked why her fingerprints were on the bedside cupboard drawer, she would admit to looking inside but not to removing anything. That way she would not be branded a criminal and risk being extradited. That was the least she could do for herself. But what could she do for Sandra Rossi? Follow up those phone contacts? Would Cleo advise her against it? Better not ask. Cleo might say no.