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Authors: Priscilla Masters

Winding Up the Serpent

BOOK: Winding Up the Serpent
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WINDING UP THE
SERPENT

Priscilla Masters

CHIVERS

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available

This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.

Published by arrangement with the Author

Epub ISBN 9781471311444

Copyright © 1995 by Priscilla Masters

The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

All rights reserved

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental

Jacket illustration © iStockphoto.com

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

‘And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.'

(
Numbers
, ch. 21 v. 13)

 

This ‘snake on a stick' is the emblem of the British Medical Association.

To my long-suffering family, and to Chief Superintendent Philip Rushton for questions answered meticulously.

Chapter 1

It was the dog, Ben, who first knew something was wrong. When the alarm clock clicked on at 6.55 he opened one brown eye and waited. Nothing happened. He dropped a huge paw over the side of his basket and sat up on his haunches, waiting for the familiar sounds ... rustling of bedclothes, soft foot on the floor, steps to the bathroom. He opened the other eye.

In the bedroom the clock radio chattered brightly. The dog gave a low growl and padded to the foot of the stairs, his tail down.

Dogs are supposed to be more sensitive to atmosphere than humans. Apparently civilization has bred out human instinct for danger. So it was fitting that it should be the dog who first knew something was wrong. Because he was a dog he did not know what, but he bounded up the stairs, across the landing, and pushed the bedroom door further open with his nose, peering round cautiously. Then he crossed the room in two great strides and waited expectantly by the bed. His mistress did not wake.

He gave a quiet whine and took up a patient watching post at the foot of the bed, like a sphinx, with his head between his paws.

Number 17 Silk Street was the house next door. At eight o'clock Evelyn Shiers took up her post, peeped through the yellow curtains, hiding at the side of the window. She didn't want Marilyn to see her watching. But neither did she want Ben to enter her garden. He frightened the cats and left torpedoes on what was left of the lawn an flower-beds. He frightened her, too. Already she could feel her mouth dry in dread of the confrontation, and the muscles at the back of her neck tightened, threatening yet another miserable migraine. She mounted guard, pleating and unpleating the fingermarked material, her eyes trained on the flower-bed, blinking quickly in case she missed the quick, grey movement of the dog.

This morning Ben did not appear.

Back at number 19 the wind was blowing the bedroom curtain, whipping the lace mats on the dressing table to a pink froth. Ben wagged his tail tentatively now, certain his mistress would soon move, swing her legs over the side of the bed, bend and touch him, pad to the bathroom then fill his bowls with food and water.

He watched the figure on the bed with extra attention; soon she must move. The breeze lifted the curtain again but there was no echoing movement from the bed and his tail gradually stopped thumping on the carpet. Ben whimpered, and glanced around the room.

He sniffed. The scent was the same, sweet and definitely her. He eyed the Spanish flamenco doll that stood in the corner and gave a low, threatening growl. He had once been punished for daring to lick it. He sniffed again. Even now it smelt alien. His nostrils twitched. He caught the faint odour of something long ago, something pleasant, something half remembered. He looked up at the still figure on the bed and gave a low, experimental bark. This always provoked response. This morning there was none.

Nobody missed her at the surgery. The doctor was busy, talking to his first patient. He let down the sphygmomanometer cuff with a hiss and unhooked the stethoscope from around his ears. ‘Your blood pressure's fine today, Mary.' His eyes crinkled as he smiled and seeing this she smiled too.

‘Thank you, Doctor.'

‘I want you to carry on with the treatment. Just two tablets a day. One in the morning and one at night.' It was a formality and forestalled her questions. There was no time. Already he was scribbling in her notes, his attention starting to move from this patient to the next.

Mary stood up and left the room and the doctor pressed the buzzer for his second patient.

She was always conscious of an unnatural silence as she walked towards the door bearing her name, Detective Inspector Piercy. There should have been sounds – drawers opening and closing, typewriter keys clicking, computers whirring, telephones ringing. But the silence always seemed to conspire against her so she ran the gauntlet, avoided curious gazes, muttered, ‘Good morning,' vaguely, and reached the room.

Once inside she flicked on the light, turned off the heating and threw open the window. The mist had cleared and the sun shone on an eggshell-blue sky. Spring was here, the time of new beginnings. She had her longed-for promotion, why did she feel depressed?

A sudden hot surge of frustration welled up inside her. It was all so unfair. She'd been awarded the position because she was good – better than those two who sat at their desks penning clumsy reports riddled with spelling mistakes. But all they could see was that she was a woman.

It had been she who had finally put the evidence together that had pinned the Whalleys behind prison bars. They had had their chance and failed. They'd all known – for eight, nine years – that one family had, between them, burgled virtually every house in the whole of this tiny moorland town. But the apathy of the local force had meant they had never bothered to work out a successful way to gather the evidence necessary to convict them. Six times they had brought weak, watery cases in front of the Crown Prosecution Service and six times the case had been thrown out.

Insufficient evidence. It just wasn't worth the cost to bring the whole case to court and it had been the morale of the local force that had suffered – that and the homes of the people of this small, crime-infested town. It had taken her just three weeks' surveillance, a video camera, a couple of well-timed warrants and a notable lack of flashing blue lights and the drama they all loved so much.

‘Bang the bloody light off, Sergeant,' she had snapped. ‘Don't bloody well announce we're coming. This isn't for the benefit of the BBC.' It had been the tight sarcasm the two other officers had resented and not forgotten, the searing scorn for their traditional police methods and a dislike for the woman who had so publicly challenged them and found them inadequate.

‘Surprise them,' she had said smoothly, ‘and perhaps for once we'll actually get a conviction and tuck this little bunch up for a few nights' safe and sound sleep at Her Majesty's five-star instead of having them leering at us as they leave our little police station.'

And she'd got them. The whole family, Ma as well, and it gave her great pleasure every time she drove out on the Buxton road and saw the For Sale sign at the bottom of the half-mile dirt track. This scruffy, isolated farmhouse had been home to the family responsible for more than half the crimes committed in this small town sealed in by high, hostile moorland.

She had been rewarded, too. Detective Sergeant Piercy had become Detective Inspector Piercy. But the promotion had sown the seeds of resentment in her junior colleagues. And new team members were quickly warned.

‘Keep away from Inspector Piercy, the Ice Maiden, the Snow Queen ...' She knew what they called her, and what they said ... ‘Thinks she's too clever, too good for the rest of us. Has some sort of illusion she's one of these clever dicks.' (Coarse laughter.) ‘Thinks she's a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Juliet Bravo. She's a cold bitch, that one.'

She could hear the words with all their hostility and prejudice every time she saw any of them, heads together, talking quietly and glancing at her. Thank God for her own room. To have to sit out there all day and see them every time she looked up would have been intolerable.

Joanna Piercy turned away from the window and rubbed her hands down the sides of her straight black skirt. ‘Bugger them,' she said loudly. ‘Bugger them.' Then, ‘Bugger them,' again.

She strode to the door and threw it open. ‘Anything either of you two want to report?' she asked sharply, as though the very question was a fresh challenge. It was the only way to survive here – to keep her anger fresh and her faculties sharp by reminding them she was their superior officer, like it or not. And they didn't.

The two men looked up at her briefly, shook their heads and looked back at the notes in front of them.

‘Couple of stolen mountain bikes,' the younger, fair-haired policeman mumbled. The officer with the black hair scowled.

‘Mike?' she asked sweetly.

He shook his head. ‘Nothing,' he grunted.

She banged the door behind her.

Ben was getting hungry. He crawled towards the bed, whining, and put one paw up. The claw snagged the lace bedspread. The hair on the back of his neck bristled and he pulled. The lace tore. His claw was free. But the action brought a belt sliding to the floor, weighted by a silver buckle. It landed with a soft, metallic thud. Ben walked around the belt, sniffing it suspiciously. It, at least, was familiar. Emboldened, he put his paw up again and this time it touched a leg. Again his claw caught. He tugged and tore a hole. A white ladder ran up the black stocking until it reached the dark band at the top. Ben's dog- brown eyes watched, fascinated, then he gave a fearful yowl and bounded downstairs towards the ringing telephone in the hall.

At the doctor's surgery the two receptionists were in a quandary. A patient had come to the window and demanded to know why Sister Smith had not rung her buzzer for him. He was half an hour late for his next appointment. What was going on?

Maureen had knocked on the nurse's door and realized the room was empty. They had rung her home and got no reply. Should they tell the doctor? They eyed the clock uneasily as the minutes ticked away. Two of the patients walked out, muttering they could wait no longer.

At half past nine the red-headed receptionist knocked on the doctor's surgery door.

He looked up irritably. ‘Yes, Sally?' He hated interruptions.

‘I'm sorry to barge in, Doctor,' she said. ‘Sister Smith hasn't come in.'

Jonah Wilson frowned. ‘Is she having a day off?'

The receptionist shook her head. ‘She's got eleven patients booked in this morning, Doctor, and more this afternoon.'

Jonah frowned and sighed. ‘Well, ring her,' he said. ‘There isn't much point in bothering me. I've got enough to do.' He turned back to the patient and the pile of notes.

Sally fiddled with the loose button on the sleeve of her blouse. Before the end of the morning she would pull it right off. ‘I did ring,' she said. ‘There was no answer.'

Jonah sighed again and tugged a pile of letters out of the Lloyd George envelope. ‘Then she's probably on her way in,' he said.

Sally could be persistent. ‘I rang her half an hour ago.' Her eyes met his. ‘It would only take her ten minutes at the most to get from her house to here. Besides, she's not usually late. Marilyn's reliable.'

Jonah shrugged his shoulders. ‘Keep trying her,' he said. ‘I expect she's overslept or had a flat tyre. There's been a muddle. She'll turn up.'

‘She would have rung,' the receptionist insisted.

He looked up briefly. ‘The line's always engaged,' he said, irritably. ‘You can never get through in the mornings.'

Sally still looked dissatisfied but she could think of no other avenue to pursue.

The doctor sighed, shrugged his shoulders and shifted his attention away from the problem of the missing nurse and back to his patient.

Sally left the room.

Chapter 2

Ben had been unnerved by the sight of the white ladder running up the leg, but curiosity brought him back to the bedroom. His head turned as he watched the breeze lift first the curtain then touch his mistress's hair, blowing it across her face. He walked slowly around the bed until he sniffed out a single glass, its contents spilt. He licked the sticky stain then looked up guiltily. This was another smacking offence. His mistress smacked hard. He put his head on one side, then sprang up and put his two front paws on the bed. This was not allowed either, but Ben was beginning to lose his fear of his mistress. He bent over her and stared at the still figure. He sniffed, then licked her mouth and barked loudly.

BOOK: Winding Up the Serpent
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