A Liz Philips Mystery
“They’re charging me with Manslaughter,” he said.
Harry blew into a plastic cup of machine coffee, and then changed his mind about drinking it.
“I honestly don’t know how it all happened, Liz, honestly I don’t.”
“All men lie,” my mother had once said. “It’s all about how much you’re willing to forgive.”
“You do have a criminal past, Harry. Look at it from their point of view.”
“I was still young then,” he snapped back. “Your mother changed me; I owe her my life. You know I’d never do anything to hurt her.”
“Have you called for a solicitor?”
Harry shook his head. “I don’t want them thinking I need one.” He laughed nervously and his hands shook as he picked up the cup and put it down again.
This was a change in dynamics I wasn’t expecting, but I owed Harry a lot; he deserved to have his story heard.
“Dave died seven month ago,” I reminded him. “The police never mentioned anything suspicious then. What’s changed?”
Harry shrugged sadly.
“One of his sisters says that she found a syringe when she came back to get some of his furniture. Greg said that she could have a few of his things back; he’s thinking of moving into a small flat.”
“That would be Bev. I’m surprised she let Greg stay,” I said. “She must need the rent. She never really took to Greg.”
“She never really took to me,” said Harry. “I felt sorry for Dave, but I just couldn’t bring myself to forgive him for what he did to Greg.”
I felt the same. Dave gambled with his life and left my little brother with HIV. You can only gamble responsibly when all sides play fair. You can’t gamble with life; life never plays fair.
“I’ll go and talk to Bev in the morning,” I promised. “They’ll keep you here overnight. In the meantime listen and trust what Boyle tells you, he’s one of the good guys. This should all be over in 24 hours.”
“But your Mum!” he cried, his eyes wide with fear. Mum had been diagnosed with a stage one dementia a couple of years ago.
“Don’t worry. Greg’s with her. They’ll look after each other.”
He grabbed my hand as I rose to leave and kissed it.
“Thank you Liz. I’m…” he struggled to find the right words. “I am very proud of you, you know.”
Harry had never said anything like this before, but I wasn’t surprised. I smiled as I squeezed his shoulder.
“Yes. I know.”
“So, what’s this all about?” demanded Bev when she opened the door to me the next day. She shoved her hands deep into the oversized pockets of her oversized dressing gown and pushed her ample bosom forward defensively.
“You know bloody well what it’s about,” I answered. “I’m here on a strictly professional basis.”
Bev sniffed as she looked me up and down. “Well, you better come in, then.”
The cat took one terrified look at me and bolted for the cat flap as we entered the kitchen. Bev flipped the kettle on and yelled at the kids to shut up as one hit the other over the head with a metal tea tray. She looked a mess. Her hair hung down in untidy spaghetti strands and the worn out slippers on her feet were threatening to leave by themselves. But Bev had always kept a clean house and the kitchen was spotless. She coped with her grief by cleaning. I wasn’t without sympathy for Bev, but I hadn’t come here to listen to her, I’d come to talk.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” I said.
Dave had lived with his family in the house at the corner of our road. It was a lovely old place with a decent plot of land and a garden that his Mum loved.
Greg and I lived a conventional life in our cramped semi. Our Mum had a hard life bringing me up on her own, until she married Harry. And then Greg came along and we were the family Mum had always dreamed of. Harry could best be described as strict but fair. I often envied the relaxed and free spirited atmosphere that Dave enjoyed at home.
When Dave’s Mum died and ill health forced his Dad into a care home, Dave inherited the lovely old house. I was already established in my own business by that time and Greg due to go to university, when suddenly he had a change of heart. Harry was furious and I found out later they’d had the most awful rows. Dave came up with a reasonable solution. He was rattling around in a house that was too big but didn’t have the heart to sell. Why didn’t he rent rooms out to students? Greg could be his first tenant and while living there, perhaps could consider furthering his education locally.
Greg jumped at the chance and settled into a course at the local technical college. Harry made it clear that this was very second best, but no one was going to change Greg’s mind, so he had to agree to compromise. I was secretly quite pleased. Greg was still close to Mum and Harry and frankly, they weren’t spring chickens anymore. He could get on with his life and still be close enough to notice if they needed anything. I was only a phone call away and would drive back if anything happened.
“Take care of him for me,” I joked to Dave during one phone conversation.
“Don’t worry,” said Dave. “It’s me who needs looking after. Have you tasted his cooking?”
Last Christmas I stayed with Mum and Harry and visited Greg and Dave the day after I arrived back. Greg looked fine; relaxed and happy. Dave seemed a little more on edge, uncomfortable, even. I couldn’t help noticing that he was fidgeting, as if he couldn’t wait for me to leave.
“What’s the matter, Dave?” I asked. “Would you two prefer to be alone?”
Only Greg laughed. Greg and I carried on chatting as if we hadn’t been apart for more than a day, but Dave and I only spoke to answer each other’s questions. The easy camaraderie we’d enjoyed as children was slipping away and it made me sad, but there was something else about Dave, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Are you coming over for some tea on Boxing Day?” I asked him.
“I’d love to,” he said, “but I promised Bev I’d spend the day with her and the kids.”
Dave hadn’t refused an invitation to our house before, but Christmas was always meant to be a time for families, so I should have expected that he’d want to spend time with his sister.
Greg spent Christmas Day with Dave “and friends” and Boxing Day with Mum, Harry and me.
I did the cooking and everyone ate far too much. We sat around watching the afternoon film with our trouser buttons undone.
“I’ve got to go for a walk,” I announced. “I can’t stay here all afternoon; I’ll get a headache if I fall asleep in the chair.”
“You go ahead,” said Greg. “Headache be damned! I intend to fall asleep in the chair.”
A narrow path of the local river ran across the bottom of Mum and Harry’s garden. I crossed the little bridge that joined the footpath and followed it for about five minutes, when the pathway opened onto the entrance to the local recreation ground.
The disused running track was slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding fields while large steel barriers had been erected to prevent the public from using the spectator platforms. I walked past the barriers, heading towards the dog walking path when I heard the hushed whispers of lovers coming from beneath the benches.
“What about your boyfriend? Doesn’t he use this stuff?”
“Greg? No, he’s way too straight-laced.”
I nearly stumbled, but carried on walking a few more paces, until I was just beyond the edge of the barrier. I strained my ears to listen.
“So if you want to behave badly, you have to come here and visit me.”
“You know all my dirty habits, Mark. That’s why I like you.”
“Here, let me do that for you. There’s a knack to it if you don’t want to leave a visible puncture. Now remember, this is the good stuff, so only use the doses I’ve shown you.”
“Wow, that’s amazing.”
“Don’t forget to tidy the gear away before the fix kicks in, you won’t be in a fit state to do it later. You’ll have to make sure you’ve cleaned up properly if you don’t want your boyfriend to know what you’re up to. Dave?”
“How are you feeling now?”
They giggled softly and I walked slowly back home.
I watched Greg very closely over the next few days, but he seemed calm and happy. He was trying to organise a New Years Eve party at their house. I offered to go shopping with him.
“So, are you and Dave still happy and in love?” I asked, teasingly.
“Mind your own business,” he laughed, suggesting that he was happy.
“I’m glad for you, Greg. Really I am. But if anything bad happened to you...” I didn’t really know how to put this. “I mean if you became unhappy, I’d make sure that Dave was unhappy too.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked suspiciously. “Dave isn’t going to make me unhappy, he really cares about me.”
I hesitated a moment.
“I think he might be using smack.” There. I’d said it.
“That’s in the past,” he snapped back. “The bad influence of an ex. Anyway, who told you? I promised Dave I wouldn’t tell anyone. Especially not Mum and Dad.”
The party felt very strange. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Mum and Harry didn’t go. Dave and Greg had their arms around each others shoulders, laughing and relaxed.
I watched them carefully and thought about how blissful ignorance really is. If I hadn’t gone for a walk in the park that day, I would never have guessed at the problems that lay beneath.
After New Year, when I had returned to work, I noticed that the phone calls Greg and I shared were becoming less and less frequent and by Easter, I realised it had been more than a month when we’d last spoke.
I called him to say that as soon as I had a free weekend I’d visit mum and Harry.
“Actually, sis, maybe it’s best if you didn’t come over. Dave’s not been very well.”
I knew a classic understatement when I heard it.
“Greg,” I said, thinking I already knew the answer to my next question “is Dave still using?”
Greg didn’t say anything for what felt like a long time and when he did speak, his voice was hoarse.
“No, but he’s in so much pain.”
All of a sudden I felt very cold, as if an icy wind had just engulfed me.
Greg took a deep breath.
“I’m fine,” he said. He’d never been able to lie to me. I’d learned to spot his lies when we were still children. Even as a child, he would always take a deep breath before a lie, almost as if he could prevent his voice from wavering.
“What about Mum and Harry?”
“They think Dave’s got a serious flu and I….” he couldn’t finish the sentence.
“I’m coming over as soon as I can,” I said and hung up. I didn’t want to hear his protestations. What I had feared most had happened and now it was time for action.
It took me a couple of days to arrange the necessary cover and to get the things I wanted, but before the end of April, I was surprising Greg on his doorstep. I could see immediately that he’d lost weight. We hugged and he smiled his usual smile.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said, still smiling; I knew he was pleased to see me.
I’m nearly seven years older than Greg, and I’ve always believed that being the eldest sibling ingrains into you a sense of responsibility that never really goes away, however old you get.
We sat in the living room talking things over.
“Dad came over last night,” he said, conversationally. “I think he knows. Neither of us actually said anything, but when he said goodnight, he looked like he wanted to hug me, although couldn’t quite get there.”
We both knew how much Harry loved us, but he’d never been a huggy kissy kind of guy.
A rough and painful sounding cough rattled from the mantelpiece and the lights on top of a baby monitor flashed.
“It’s just in case he needs anything. Another chest infection is the latest complication.”
“How much longer?” I asked gently. I didn’t mean to be blunt, but I’ve never been able to ignore a situation.
“We don’t know and the doctors don’t know either, but maybe…” Greg trailed off as tears formed in his eyes. “No, not long.”
“What about you?” I asked, a little more brightly. “How have you been?”
“I’m ok. I’m on a monitored program and the doctors say they’re seeing positive things with this new cocktail they’ve given me. With the number of pills I’m taking, I’m surprised I don’t rattle when I walk.”
He laughed a little and I saw some of the old Greg there.
“You look tired,” I commented.
“I am. I’m sleeping in the larger spare room at the moment, so I don’t disturb Dave too much.” He looked at his watch. “Another hour and he’ll need his next dose.”
I turned my head away, disapproving.
“It’s not so bad. He’s taking clinically prescribed methadone and the nurses come every day. They’ll be back in the morning and it gives me a break.”
“Look, why don’t I sleep here tonight.” I suggested. “I can keep an eye on Dave while you get some sleep. I’ll sleep in the other spare room.”
I made Greg a milky drink and he turned in early, checking on Dave first, while I stayed up to watch the late film. I waited an hour before finally turning off the TV and the baby monitor.
I tiptoed upstairs barefoot with my toiletries bag and listened outside Greg’s door. I could hear nothing, so crept into the main bedroom.
Dave was half sitting, half lying, propped up with pillows, his eyes closed, and his face serene.
I put my toiletries bag on the bed an unzipped it. As I did so, I glanced up at Dave and suddenly noticed that whatever I had intended to do was unnecessary. The rough, rasping breaths I had heard on the monitor were now silent and his chest was still.
I re-zipped my toiletries bag and hid it in one of the drawers of the bedside cabinet. On top were all the usual necessities of a patient’s bedside table; a water glass, a methadone bottle and several disposable medical spoons. Everything looked very neat and tidy; too neat and tidy.
I made sure that I opened the door to the nurse the following morning.
She held my hands as I explained how I had made the awful discovery in the wee hours while my brother was asleep and how I’d had to break the news to him. Greg’s hands shook as he made the tea and I had to take over. I made him some breakfast but he simply stared into his teacup and left the toast on the plate to go cold.
“It’s easily done.” said the doctor later.
I looked at him, frowning at the strange choice of words, at the same time thinking of what I had considered doing.
“We found an obvious puncture. It’s clear he injected himself. But,” he continued, giving me a hard stare, “There’s no way he could have prepared the dose or cleared the things away afterwards. There was no needle in the bed. He hadn’t taken any more methadone and the supplies he had in his toiletries bag didn’t look like they’d been touched.”
I went back to Dave’s room later and found the syringe behind the chest of drawers. It was the only place he could have thrown it from the bed.
The day of the funeral was actually very nice. A fresh wind blew jagged clouds briskly across a bright blue sky. There weren’t very many people in the chapel; I recognised Bev, but had to be re-introduced to the younger one. Her baby couldn’t stop screaming and had to be taken outside. His father was too ill to attend. As the coffin finally pushed its way through the grey curtains, Greg started to cry again and I held his hand.
We emerged from the gloom, blinking in the bright sunshine, to view the flowers and read the cards.
Greg put his arm around my shoulder and planted a kiss at my temple.
“Thanks sis. For everything,” he said, before walking over to talk to Dave’s family.
I wasn’t sure what he meant until I saw the flowers that Harry had sent. In his unmistakable handwriting I read “I’ll always be looking out for you.” It was exactly the same message I’d put on my flowers.
Bev pulled a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. I didn’t tell her about my night time visit to Dave’s room or the toiletries bag.
“I thought it was all Greg’s doing and Dave was just unlucky,” she admitted. “I never expected Harry to be arrested.”
“Where did you get the syringe?”
“I nicked it from Dave’s toiletries bag before it was taken away. I was convinced it was Greg’s. When he told me I could have the furniture, it felt like an opportunity.”
I couldn’t be angry with Bev. What I had planned was worse, after all.
I drove Harry back home and mum asked him if he’d enjoyed his little trip. Harry and I looked at Greg who shrugged.
I stayed late into the evening, just watching TV with my family and although we’re an odd bunch, it felt nice, normal.
My mobile rang at about 9pm. It was Boyle.
“I’m off duty now,” he said. “I thought you’d just like to know that we’ve closed the file and no further enquiries will be made.”
“Oh yes?” I said, trying to sound casual.
“Yes, apparently the syringe that Mrs Parker found in the toiletries bag contained a dose that was of insufficient strength or quality to take Mr Jones’ life. As it was unused and there was nothing else in the bag to compare it to, there’s nothing we can do.”
I put my hand over my mouth to ensure I didn’t laugh. “Weren’t you suspicious when it went missing?”
Boyle gave a discreet little cough, embarrassed. “We thought the hospital had taken it. They thought we had.” He coughed again. “Um, Liz, I know this is unconventional, but I’d really like to buy you a drink. I could pick you up?” he suggested, hopefully.
“No, sorry,” I said abruptly. “But I’m just not free.”
Harry raised an eyebrow. “Who was that then?” he asked.
I smiled at the only father I’d ever really known and wondered what kind of a life he’d had to owe it all to Mum.
“Oh, no one,” I said looking back at the TV. “No one important.”