Not a very nice woman, p.1
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       Not a Very Nice Woman, p.1

           John Eider
Not a Very Nice Woman

  Not a Very Nice Woman

  By John Eider

  Copyright 2012 John Eider

  Chapter 1 – The Cedars


  ‘A woman dead, you say?’ asked Inspector Graham Rase of his Sergeant, Cornelia Smith, as she drove them through the mid-morning traffic, back from their earlier appointment out of town.

  ‘Yes, a resident of the Cedars.’

  ‘Tell me again why we’re going there?’

  ‘This is the second death at the Cedars in a month, and so it flagged up.’

  ‘But it’s an old people’s home.’ He didn’t mean to be insensitive, but… ‘Have we any reason to think there’s foul play?’

  Yet he knew the drill as well as she, and so prepared himself for the minor tragedy awaiting: the relatives, the friends, the carers accepting the inevitable.

  ‘Anyway,’ she added as they nearer the building, ‘the Cedars isn’t an old people’s home, it’s a trust run privately on behalf of the residents.’

  Who all happen to be elderly, thought the Inspector, who knew the place and had passed it often without ever being inside. Indeed so close was the building to the police station that as they approached he wondered whether he might have better advised his Sergeant to park back at base and accompany him there on foot. But his thoughts were interrupted as they joined the Crescent that shared the building’s name.

  Cedars Crescent was a quiet road between two thoroughfares, as silent as a London square and dominated by the clutch of trees that gave it its name and which had resisted the development all around them to remain within the Crescent’s shallow arc. The trees drew the eye from the unassuming block of apartments opposite. The building was a smart one, and one which, even for all the times he must have passed it, Grey had not fully appreciated. Two storeys high excluding the ground floor and dominated by six large windows running along each, the building was perhaps the width overall of four large houses put together. It was of simple design but all the more elegant for that, and finished – for decorated was hardly the word – with jade marble panels linking each window with those above and beneath it and which over time had weathered to match the foliage of the trees across the road.

  ‘Not much activity outside,’ observed Grey (as he was commonly known) as the car turned off the Crescent and pulled in along the service-road that ran beside the property toward the carpark at the rear. Grey noticed then for the first time that there was no door at the building’s front.

  ‘No, here they all are,’ said Cori (for she too found her name rounded down with use) surprised at the hidden activity at the back of the building as she pulled in to park beside an ambulance and a marked police car.

  ‘Inspector,’ a Constable all in white overalls greeted them upon seeing their arrival. ‘She’s up on the second floor. The room’s open now, scenes of crime have finished.’

  ‘Not a routine visit then?’ Grey clambered out of the car with renewed vigour, Cori feeling the same twinge as she saw his brow furrow.

  At the rear of the building, which Grey suspected was normally even more silent and secluded than the front, was a small fenced garden with benches, miniature trees and a burbling water feature; beside these a carpark not recently tarmacked, and hidden by a hedge a small unit of garages. The back of the apartment block was less decorated than the front, plain brick interrupted by intersecting ivy-vines of drainpipes; yet its startling features were the continuous strips of glass that ran horizontally along each level and seemed little more than sheltering for the linking walkways that extended within the back wall.

  Only on the ground floor was this different, where between several different windows and doors and for half the floor’s length extended a conservatory so large it seemed a room in itself. It had patio doors that in warmer months would open up to join the lawn; though it was surely still too early in the year for this feature to be utilised. As for now it was closed to the elements, windows steamed, and so seemed occupied.

  ‘What do we have, Constable?’

  ‘The victim is a Mrs Stella Dunbar…’

  ‘Ms,’ interrupted a serious-looking woman meeting them at the door from the main building. ‘Emm-Ess. She was always very strict on that point, that you shouldn’t judge a woman on her marital status. A point incidentally with which I happen to agree.’

  ‘Then I hope not to forget that in our dealings,’ answered Grey, he hoped diplomatically.

  ‘Rachel Sowton, Duty Manager. You’d be the Inspector?’ She extended her hand to shake.

  ‘Yes, and this is Sergeant Smith.’

  ‘Do you want to go straight up?’ she offered without joy.

  ‘Thank you, but there’s just a few things I need to know first.’ He urged the Constable on go on.

  ‘Ms Stella Dunbar, sir,’ he resumed warily. ‘Seventy-one years old and resident here for twenty-four years…’

  ‘Forty-seven when she arrived?’ thought Grey aloud. ‘She’d have been young then, for this place?’

  The Duty Manager answered, ‘Stella was one of the existing residents who formed the Cedars Trust sixteen years ago. They were simply private flats before. At fifty-five she’d have been no younger than the others in the agreement.’

  ‘You were here then?’

  ‘I was hired by the Trust at its formation. Surely we can sort these details out later, Inspector?’

  ‘Quite right. So,’ he turned back to his colleague, ‘when was Ms Dunbar last seen, and when was she found?’

  But again it was the lady who answered,

  ‘Well I can tell you that, as it was I who found her.’

  Grey saw her shudder saying this, evidently not entirely the controlled profession she was attempting to be even in these circumstances.

  ‘Then I hope you don’t mind us asking.’

  But she quickly shook her head, saying, ‘I might also have been the last to see her alive: last night at around eight o’clock, returning to her room after the walk she liked to take around then.’

  ‘Though there’s talk of a visitor after that,’ added the Constable.

  ‘Yes, one of the first floor residents thought they saw a young girl running down the stairs and leaving the building at around ten, though I was on the stairs myself soon after so I think it must have been shortly before then.’

  ‘Do we know who this was?’

  ‘He thought she might have been a girl he’d seen here before, one of those from the Southney School who Stella tutored – she used to be a teacher, you see – but obviously they’re never here that late, straight after school being their normal slot.’

  ‘And did she had an appointment that afternoon?’

  ‘I don’t know. You may find a diary up there.’

  ‘And then she took a walk?’

  ‘Around seven or eight, yes. That was always her time to take the air you see, after her students had gone and she’d fixed her evening meal.’

  ‘Thank you, so what of this morning?’

  ‘One of the other residents went up to see her: Charlie Prove. I think they were supposed to meet downstairs for breakfast.’

  ‘Do you cook for the residents?’

  ‘It depends on their need, and the flats all have kitchens of course. Stella tended to look after herself, though often took communal breakfast. Anyway, there was no answer at her door when Charlie called looking for her, and so he came to find me – I have the master keys, you see. When I got there we could see the lights still on and the curtains closed behind the corridor windows. Obviously, I couldn’t know what we’d…’

  ‘When was this?

  ‘Around eight fifteen.’

  ‘And the curtains still draped struck you as odd?’

  ‘She was
a very early riser, hated slouching around in her pyjamas, would always have the curtains thrown open. When we went into her rooms it was hard to see – the lights were on, but the corridor we’d come from was still bright with the sun, and at first I didn’t see her there…’

  ‘Don’t worry about that for now. We’ll need a statement from you of course; but it would be as well for us to see the flat for ourselves.’

  ‘Then I’ll show you up.’

  Grey wasn’t going to argue with this level of cooperation, and they allowed themselves to be led briskly up through the building. At the top of the stairs they met white boiler-suited scenes of crime officers who moved aside to let the party pass, one of whom then followed them along the narrow walkway that ran along half the length of the second floor, saying,

  ‘All clear, Inspector. You can move anything you like, though you’ll need to suit up.’

  The Inspector nodded his regards, as in the cramped space outside the room he and Cori took white coverings from their sterile packaging and pulled them over clothes, shoes, head and hands.

  ‘You must have been here all morning,’ asked Grey in the form of a statement to the man already suited.

  ‘Only since nine. Truth be told, there wasn’t much to find. The rooms are mostly undisturbed, though we have the usual mass of fibres and fingerprints to go through.’

  ‘And it was murder?’ he asked quietly.

  ‘All indications suggest so,’ answered the forensics man in similarly understated tones.

  ‘And the method?’

  ‘Simple strangulation, sir.’

  ‘Thank you.’ Grey looked to Ms Sowton, who though stood some way back had still heard them and who for all her self-control again seemed to tremble.

  She gestured, ‘This is the door.’

  Pausing as Cori tied back her hair, Grey took in his surroundings before entering the second apartment they had met along the corridor. There may have been a third amid a mass of cheeseplants and indoor ferns and who-knew-what else that filled the final stretch of the corridor, growing up from their baskets and pots along the walls and the spaces in-between to almost block out the brilliant white light that flooded in from that broad strip-window.

  ‘You could have an artists’ studio up here,’ he suggested. ‘It’s a shame to waste this light on the corridor.’

  ‘Believe me, in the summer the heat can be too much,’ answered the Duty Manager. ‘Better for those things,’ she pointed at the cheeseplants, ‘than for us. Anyway, we get enough light still through the inner windows,’ (for frosted glass did indeed run along the inside wall lighting the apartments) ‘and the front of the building catches its fair share in the afternoons.’

  Grey turned to the outer glass within its thin steel frames, to look down first over the garden and carpark, before raising his gaze to take in the skyline of their town.

  ‘Like Southney’s answer to Rear Window, eh sir?’ offered Cori now kitted out, and knowing how her Inspector’s mind worked.

  ‘Jimmy Stewart would have loved this view sure enough.’

  ‘I’m not sure that’s the happiest cinematic metaphor, given what you’re about to see.’

  Thus suitably chastised by Ms Sowton, Grey turned to speak to her,

  ‘We will need to speak to you later. We could be in here a while though, so if there’s things you needed to be getting on with…’

  ‘Thank you. I could use a moment alone to clear my mind.’

  And so leaving her facing the window whose view Grey had so admired, the detectives followed their Constable through the door and into the scene of what Grey had now had confirmed to him after all to be a very suspicious death.

  Chapter 2 – Stella Dunbar

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