The fat girl had been easy, trusting and friendly, caught completely off guard. He had planned it well this time, left nothing to chance, and it had worked like a dream. He was proud of himself. He was never going to be foolhardy enough to think it had become easy and that he could not make a mistake. Pride would come before the fatal fall. He was not going to allow that to happen.
Because he had not finished, not by any means.
He unlocked a side drawer of the metal desk and took out a folder. Inside was a typewritten list. He read down it now, for pleasure.
Young man, 18–30
Mature man, 40–70
Elderly man, 70 plus
Young woman, 18–30
Middle-aged woman, 40–60
Elderly woman, 65 plus
He had never added the word ‘Dog’. Dog had not been part of the plan, Dog had been on the spur of the moment, because seeing Dog had brought the raging jealousy foaming up inside him at the recollection of that dog, her dog, the hated dog. It had looked exactly the same, breed, colour, size, everything. Dog might have been a clone of that dog. He had taken Dog before he had thought what he was doing.
Dog had been disposed of.
Two entries on the typed list had ticks in red pen beside them and now he took the same pen out of the drawer and let the point hover beside Young woman, 18–30. He remembered the feel of her fat neck as he had locked his arm round it and pulled her back. She had made little sound, only a deep, choking gurgle.
He placed the pen point on the paper and formed the red tick mark, lingering over the short downward and the longer upward stroke.
Three ticks. Six entries.
He wondered if six would do. But there was no hurry, and besides, the search for the right one might take months. He was unlikely to be so lucky and quick again, and it was the selection and the planning that were so vital if he was not to make any mistake.
The small clock on the desk read seven twenty. He placed the paper back in the file and locked the drawer, then went across the room and through the inner door to the store. He switched on the overhead lights here and at once the place was lit in exactly the way all the pathology rooms he had known were lit. There was a steel sink in one corner and a channel in the rubber floor leading into a central drain. Against the wall, what looked like the doors of large filing cabinets gleamed greenish grey. Propped up beside them was the metal table. He wheeled it to the centre under the main light and over the drain, then opened it out. A metal trolley with rubber wheels was set up in the same way, with a sliding drawer attached to one side by hooks and bolts. The drawer swung out at an angle to reveal the instruments arranged so that the whole was like a display that gave satisfaction to the eye by its order and symmetry.
He stood back, checking.
When he was satisfied, he crossed to where the rectangular box stood on its metal runners, and swung it round until it was level with the table.
Debbie Parker’s body was already cool to the touch. Sharp surgical scissors slit her fleece jacket, trousers, jumper and underclothes, all of which were dropped into a black bin bag, to be disposed of later. Her wristwatch, house keys and a small credit-card-sized torch went into a separate box. There were three cards in one of her pockets. He studied the writing for a second or two and finding the New Age claptrap of no interest, dropped them into the bin on top of the clothes.
Then he stood beside the metal table, looking down at the girl’s flabby na*ed body, with its pitted facial skin and acned shoulders. He felt nothing. That was correct. At post-mortems the pathologist felt nothing, no emotion, no sorrow or sympathy, only curiosity and intellectual and professional interest. The first pleasures, those that accompanied the hunt, the swift capture and the kill, were over. The rest was to come, and it was different, more clinical and unheated, and much slower. The other was furtive, hurried and frightening. His blood pressure rose, he sweated, his heart pounded. He was taking an appalling risk. Now, he was sure that there was no risk at all, because everything had been planned so carefully, for so long, and practice helped.
He walked round the table slowly, looking at the body, and as he went, he began to dictate, as the pathologist did, noting everything about the body on the table under his scrutiny, quietly and professionally, in the tone of voice he had heard and admired so many times and imitated by himself over and over again. He was proud of his own expertise now, confident that he could take on any of them, the best in the world, and was proving the bastards wrong about him. They had had the power to fail him, to judge him unworthy to join their ranks and now he was getting his own back.
When he was ready, he took up the scalpel. He had too little time now but he wasn’t able to wait and tonight he could come back and spend as long as he liked, here at the heart of everything, expertly taking Young woman, 18–30, apart. From the moment he had taken her round the neck from behind, Debbie Parker had ceased to exist as a human being with a personality and a name as well as a life. That was why he could operate on her dispassionately. They all could. It was how they did the job. She was a sample, a specimen of her sex and age, no more.
He bent forward and made the first precise incision.
Cat Deerbon had succeeded in her aim of keeping one room in their farmhouse out of bounds to children and dogs. As a result it had become known mockingly as the Smart Sitting Room and it was in there, on two matching sofas and deep armchairs upholstered in cream leather, that they had now gathered. Supper had been eaten, and they had brought glasses of wine in with them. A cafetière and a pot of tea were on the low table. It was rare for Cat to be able to hold a meeting at home, but it was half-term and Meriel Serrailler had taken Sam and Hannah overnight to London for assorted treats including the Eye, the Planetarium and the Hard Rock Café. Cat had been able to cook a decent meal, make the house and herself presentable and put together some notes which were now typed out on a sheet of paper in front of her.
The others, sitting back comfortably with their wine and coffee, were Chris, the osteopath Nick Haydn, Aidan Sharpe the acupuncturist, and Gerald Tait, senior partner at a GP practice on the other side of Lafferton and someone both the Deerbons greatly liked and respected, as a man and as a doctor. He represented the older generation but his outlook was up to date and his sympathies were broad.
Over supper, the talk had been partly medical but of a general nature. Now, they were to focus.
Cat set down her glass. ‘It was my idea to have this informal meeting of minds but of course it is informal and I’m not sitting here as any sort of chairperson. We’re all on an equal footing and everyone must say exactly what they think.
‘OK. Chris and I have become increasingly concerned over the last few months about some of the – I don’t know what terms you prefer – alternative therapists, complementary practitioners, working in our area. I should use the words “quack” and “charlatan” about many of them and I daresay you would too. You know that quite a large community of people has mushroomed in and around Starly Tor, because of its history and dubious reputation as an ancient site of – well, take your pick – witchcraft, Druid worship, healing, ley lines … a lot of New Age travellers appear there with the spring, and all the usual shops and cafés and so on have moved into Starly as a result. None of that matters, they’re usually harmless. There’s a bit of dope smoking – though oddly enough, my policeman brother says there are fewer serious drug problems up there than in Lafferton and certainly fewer than in Bevham. No. Drugs are not the point. What have come to our attention and become a matter of real concern are the quack practitioners. At best they take a lot of money from gullible people who can ill afford it, and even that wouldn’t really be anything to do with us. But a number of these so-called therapists are not harmless. The point is, as you know, neither Chris nor I – nor most of the other GPs in Lafferton – are against properly trained and qualified alternative therapists working in proven disciplines. That’s why we asked you, Aidan and Nick … I’ve sent patients to Nick who sorts out the bad backs, I’ve sent them to Aidan, because I know there are some conditions that respond well to acupuncture. But you two know what you’re doing and you follow the first principle of all orthodox doctors: ‘Do no harm.’
Aidan Sharpe cleared his throat. ‘Thank you, Cat – sorry to interrupt you but I am grateful for that and I’m sure Nick is. We are properly trained and qualified, as you rightly say, but I’m afraid we still come in for a good deal of hostile criticism for what we do.’
He had a strangely precise and formal way of speaking. It probably went with the exactness and precision of his skills, Cat thought. She had talked to Aidan Sharpe about traditional Chinese acupuncture and noted how it seemed to combine an elaborately laid-down scientific system of mapping the body and what could go wrong with it, with the need for an intuitive, almost artistic flair for diagnosis. She did not pretend to understand or accept the theory behind the whole thing – it contradicted much of what she had been taught – but she respected that it had a long and honourable history – and that it often worked.
Nick Haydn sprawled at one end of a sofa, a big, broad rugby player with huge hands, a therapist who could manipulate people’s bodies with energy and strength when necessary, his way of working in contrast to that of Sharpe – for whom, Cat noted, he seemed to have a certain antipathy. Well, they were at opposite ends of the spectrum as people as well as therapists. Nick wore a clean but creased sweatshirt emblazoned with ‘Guinness is good for You’ over baggy corduroys; Aidan Sharpe wore a well-cut suit and a bow tie in a paisley pattern. Nick’s hair was curly and needed cutting, Aidan’s was neatly combed; Nick was clean and scrubbed but needed a shave, Aidan wore a goatee beard. Cat liked and respected them both. It was good that they complemented one another.
‘What has brought all this up now? Starly’s been the haunt of hippies and New Agers for years,’ Nick said. ‘They don’t take any business away from me – my appointment book is always full.’
Aidan Sharpe nodded across at him in agreement.
‘Two things really. Firstly, I had an emergency call recently to a young girl who had consulted a practitioner up there about her acne. She got some herbal capsules from this guy and also a vile-smelling ointment. She had a serious allergic reaction to one or both and her flatmate had to call me out. She was fine but I had the stuff analysed by a mate at BG. The tablets were rubbish – dried parsley mainly – but the ointment contained several things that I wouldn’t allow near anyone’s skin.’
‘Who in God’s name gave her the stuff?’ Gerald Tait looked angry. ‘This is the reason the new EU regulation on over-the-counter medicines has been drafted – dangerous substances peddled by profiteering crooks.’
‘But that EU directive is throwing out the baby with the bathwater,’ Aidan put in, ‘because if it comes into force people won’t be able to buy some very useful supplements.’
‘I’d rather that than see harm done.’
‘The trouble is, people like this practitioner in Starly will never conform to the regs.’
‘Who is the man anyway? Do we know?’
‘He rejoices in the name of Dava.’
‘Dava what?’ Nick asked.
‘Oh, he has nothing so orthodox as a surname. Just Dava.’
Nick snorted in derision.
‘There’s worse.’ Cat looked down at her notes. ‘A psychic surgeon has started practising up there.’
Gerald Tait looked round at the others. ‘This is a new one to me. What in heaven’s name is a “psychic surgeon”?’
‘May I interpose here?’ Aidan put up his hand to straighten the bow tie which was not in the least crooked. I know what it is about bow ties, Cat thought, it’s not just that they’re prissy, it’s that they remind me of all the smoothie gynaecologists I’ve met.
‘I do happen to know a bit about psychic surgery. Though I confess I’d no idea we were graced with a local practitioner and I must agree, it’s an appalling thought. It is overwhelmingly a foreign practice and of course it’s a form of trickery done usually quite cleverly, but anyone who can bust a magician or knows a bit about conjuring can tell you how it works. They prey upon the poor and the gullible and they treat those without hope. But of course there has to be a success rate of sorts, otherwise they’d quickly run out of clients, so they have accomplices.’
‘Like all the best magicians,’ Chris said. ‘The girl who helps with the sawing in half, the plant in the audience who volunteers himself to be blindfolded before picking a card.’
‘Exactly. The accomplices pose as patients with anything from an apparent broken leg to an intestinal tumour. They come along with case notes, letters from bogus consultants and so on, and, of course, they are cured and proclaim that a miracle has been performed on them, so lo and behold, the queues form.’
‘Dear God, are there no limits to what people will do to con others out of their money?’ Gerald said. ‘Haven’t we taught the British public anything in several centuries of successful orthodox medicine?’
‘You’d be surprised,’ said Aidan, ‘if you knew how many people come to me who should have gone straight to their GP – which is where I send them, I hasten to add. But if I were unscrupulous I could do a lot of damage and make a fortune into the bargain. People want to believe. They want to believe that an acupuncturist can cure congenital blindness and Down’s syndrome and a club foot and even reverse the ageing process. Don’t imagine I treat even half those who come to me. Perhaps the same goes for Nick.’
‘Less so,’ Nick Haydn said. ‘Osteopaths are seen as practically orthodox – we’re thought of in the same breath as physiotherapists. But I’ve had plenty of people come to me with broken ankles and even once a broken neck because they thought I’d sort them out better than A & E would.’
‘I’d like to hear more about this psychic surgery,’ Gerald Tait interrupted.
Cat listened as Aidan Sharpe gave them a lecture on the practice. The ‘surgeon’, even though he was practising sleight of hand, actually touched and manipulated the bodies of his clients, scoring their flesh with his thumbnail or a round-ended stick which he had palmed, to mark and bruise but not cut, and then he pretended to remove tissue of various kinds from inside the body.
‘And you’re telling us, this is what is going on ten miles from here, Cat? Dear God. Something has to be done.’
‘That’s why I wanted us to meet. The point is, Gerald, we need to show somehow that we, as orthodox medics, approve of genuine alternative practitioners like Aidan and Nick, then maybe people would guess the others don’t have our imprimatur?’
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