She looked at herself in the mirror; not a pretty sight, despite being flattered by Brains. Carol was still asleep, she had appeared withdrawn the last few days; clearly the enormity of her actions was weighing on her mind. Jackie could only offer tea and sympathy, and a shoulder to lean on...
Outside her apartment the weather was brightening up; although it still looked cold, a hazy sunshine was making inroads into the snow and ice. In places the street was dry and...
No more excuses. On with the blue tracksuit and a long nine mile run to Orson’s house; if he was up and about she’d sponge a lift back – or catch a bus. Part of the way she could run by the canal towpath; it would cut the distance by about a mile, and no traffic fumes would invade her lungs.
By the time she reached the towpath she was knackered; wheezing away like an asthmatic pensioner. She slowed to a gentle jog, then a brisk walk, and then a slow walk. One optimistic fisherman wrapped from head to toe in oilskins, sat on the bank engrossed in a book. He - she presumed he was a man - was being observed by a bevy of swans: two graceful adults and three fluffy cygnets; they were possibly hoping he’d throw them a few pieces of bread.
Idyllic and peaceful setting, but close to the motorway; Orson had chosen his home well. Jackie strolled by while soaking up the sunshine. She could see the back of Stonehouse Court hotel across the canal; in the grounds, preparations were being made for a seasonal party; a large marquee with a stage adorned with banners and balloons. She heard a dog whine and turned her gaze back to the towpath. A Pitbull was trotting along; attached to its lead was a woman...
‘Hello Jackie. Long way from home?’
Tania Simpson smiled but Jackie didn’t. The dog was sniffing at her ankles – smelly brute. She moved aside, started jogging on the spot. ‘Toning up.’
Tania didn’t take the hint. ‘Darling, you look tired. I heard you burnt-out ... too much stress...’
A week ago, Jackie would have blown up, but not that day, despite the provocation. ‘Actually, Tania, I thrive on stress ... just taking a well-earned break.’
Tania dug the knife in and twisted. ‘Is that what your shrink says?’
Jackie felt on top form. And ready to invent an illness. ‘It’s a hormonal imbalance ... you should know ... coming up to your menopause.’
Tania sniffed as though there was a bad smell. She pulled the dog’s lead and brushed past. ‘Come on Caesar, back home.’
Jackie was impressed. Fair play, Tania hadn’t fallen into the trap of saying she wasn’t that old, which could have opened up a whole bag of worms. First the disbelieving raise of eyebrows followed by vindictive comments about her leathery skin and bleached hair.
Next time, maybe.
She took more interest in her surroundings, trying to picture where Tania might live. It wouldn’t be far away; Tania wasn’t the outdoor type; more at home in smoke-ridden bars. The nearest settlement was a select cul-de-sac. She’d noticed a Land Rover parked outside one of the cottages – it could have been hers.
Jackie moved on. Another half-mile took her into a small estate; Orson’s house was a four bedroom detached; his Astra was on the drive. She rang the door-bell. He was at home; seemed surprised to see her, but invited her inside, led the way into a kitchen diner as big as the police canteen, and offered a drink.
‘Toilet first, if I may. Water’s fine. I’m on a detox.’
He snorted back a laugh and pointed to the hall bathroom. When she came back out he had poured out a glass. He moved across to the fridge and extracted a can of Heineken. He had a guilty look on his face. ‘Don’t expect me to join you. I’ve got plenty of catching up to do.’
‘Bit early for that?’
He glanced up at the wall clock. ‘Just gone ten. Nearly lunch time ... I’m starving.’
Jackie stifled a smile. ‘What about your medication?’
He sniffed; pulled off the ring cap and took a slug. ‘Don’t believe a word of it. Carstairs has to justify his fees somehow. Anyway, I’m feeling great ... went to cheer up Marty the other day.’
She took a deep breath. ‘I know.’
He didn’t seem as surprised as he could have been. It only took him a few seconds to make the connection. ‘You’ve talked to your shrink?’
She nodded. Maybe Orson wasn’t in the best physical shape but his mental faculties were sharp. ‘Brains told me he also paid you a visit.’
Orson put down his can, and rubbed his stubble. ‘Did he now?’ He waved her to a seat at the dining table. ‘Perhaps it’s time you put your cards on the table.’
She shook her head. ‘Quid quo pro, guv? We both show our hands, okay?’
Jackie watched as he fought to suppress his emotions. A red patch began to form on his neck, but it dissipated while he strove to find the right words. ‘I’ve had plenty of time to think while I’ve been in hospital. Sophie, of course ... my life, my career ... but I’m clear on one thing. I joined the force to stamp out crime ... including ones of our own making.’
‘Marty, you mean?’
He nodded. ‘Marty, for one … maybe also Hillock.’
She felt it was time to spill the beans. ‘Guv … you know I had been monitoring the AIDS aspect … well Heidi let on that some new hospital patients were infected. One of those was Councillor Winterbotham. I went to see him before all this happened ... he was in a bad way ... you know, really sick.’
Orson was gazing at her. ‘Go on, I’m listening.’
She took a gulp of water and explained the cover up; Winterbotham’s fictitious alibi, Hillock backing off – Marty having something on both of them that they didn’t want to come to light. In Winterbotham’s case it was a compromising video tape. ‘But I don’t know what hold Marty’s got over Hillock.’
Orson tapped his nose. ‘Well I do. Marty upset some sleazy scumbags ... allegedly, Hillock is in their pockets ... some favours were called in ... and Marty is sure the message came from Hillock. Hands off ... or else.’
Cards on the table - no answers, only more questions. Jackie sipped her water.
Orson thought for a long time. ‘I’m hungry. And I know where to eat. Cheltenham hospital; come-on ... you can drive. We’ll see if Dixon will make a statement.’
‘I’m off the case, guv.’
He beamed. ‘Social visit, Miss Marple.’