A student in the Reading Room of the London Library, Marion Summers, suddenly goes into a seizure, then slips into a coma and then dies. But what first appears to be a simple tragedy, is soon revealed to be much more sinister. During the autopsy, it's determined that she actually died of acute arsenic poisoning. Brought to the attention of the Serious Crime Unit of Scotland Yard, the newly promoted Detective Inspector Kathy Kolla, with the help of her superior, DCI David Brock, investigate the mysterious Summers, leading them to suspect her death was related to unexplained and unusual aspects of her recent life. The more they investigate, the more confounding the mystery becomes and more the clear it is that behind what really happened - and why - lies the most difficult-to-crack case Kolla and Brock have ever faced.
About the Author
BARRY MAITLAND was born Scotland, worked in London, and lives in Australia. Author of several novels featuring Brock and Kolla, his work has been a finalist for the Barry Award, the John Creasey Award, and was the winner of the Ned Kelley Award.
Read an Excerpt
A Brock and Kolla Mystery
By Barry Maitland
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Barry Maitland
All rights reserved.
NIGEL OGILVIE HURRIED UP the stairs to the Reading Room on the first floor, and made his way, panting slightly, to the big windows overlooking the square. It was a dazzling spring morning, the sun glistening on new foliage bursting from the trees in the central garden, so that it seemed as if King William on his bronze horse was prancing through a brilliant green cloud. Nigel spotted the familiar figure sitting on a bench not far from the statue, her head bent over a book, and watched as she wiped her mouth with a paper napkin, then slowly gathered up the wrapper and drink bottle by her side. He reached into his pocket for his mobile phone and took a picture, capturing the moment as Marion got to her feet and the sun caught her, setting her red hair alight. She began to walk towards the library, tossing her rubbish into a bin. Her coat was unbuttoned, and he watched the swell of her thighs beneath her dress as she strode, head up. Lithe, he thought, that was the word. He felt a small quickening of his heartbeat and turned away, making his way across the Reading Room to where he'd left his book earlier. Settling himself in the red leather armchair, he opened the heavy volume on his knee and waited, eyes unfocused on the text.
He was finding it hard to concentrate these days, his research not going well. The idea for the project, Deadly Gardens, had been dreamed up by his boss over a boozy lunch, and Nigel was convinced that it wasn't going to work. For the past week he'd been trying to make something of the gardens that Lucrezia Borgia would have known at Ferrara, Nepi, Spoleto and Foligno, but really, it was a waste of time — Lucrezia had had more pressing things on her mind than gardening. She too had red hair, if Veneziano's portrait was to be believed, and Nigel imagined that she and Marion might have other things in common — a dangerous attraction for one.
Deadly Gardens. He sighed with frustration. He detested Stephen, his boss, a philistine about half his age, who treated him with an amused contempt that made him feel as if he was back at school. But at least the project had provided him with an excuse to hide himself here in the library. He loved the place, a refuge where he could turn off his importuning mobile phone, bury himself in the womb of a million books, snuffle about on the steel grille floors among the stacks, do The Times crossword and — a particular satisfaction — observe the other patrons. Poking about in the memoirs of the dead was fascinating, of course, but there was a particular buzz, a special frisson, about the leisurely observation of lives in which passions were still unresolved, and suffering still to be endured.
And here she came at last, Marion Summers, making her entrance up the main stair and looking more Pre-Raphaelite than ever, with her long flowing skirt and that mane of thick red hair and complexion so pale — deathly pale this morning — that he could make out the faint blue line of the artery ticking in her throat. She too had her particular place in the Reading Room, at one of the tables, her pile of books next to the small vase of flowers she'd brought in the previous day. He wondered where they'd come from. They were white, and more like wild flowers than the sort of thing you'd find in a florist's, rather improbable in Central London. What had she been up to last weekend? Was there an admirer out there he didn't know about?
He watched her as she approached, trying to hide his eagerness, and wondered if she would glance at him and offer one of her knowing little smiles. They were at least at that stage, although in his imagination they were a good deal further. Stephen would be irate to learn that he had certainly spent more time studying her than the Borgias' gardens. He knew her borrowing record, her home address, her working timetable, her tastes in soft drinks and sandwiches. He could recall exactly the intonations of her voice when she was puzzled, amused, cajoling the librarians who helped her track down the things she needed. And he had many photographs of her, working here in the library, sitting outside in St. James's Square beneath William III on his prancing horse, and on the bus. And all this he had acquired in secret, without arousing the least suspicion.
Marion paused beside her table, splaying her fingers on its surface for support. There was a faint sheen of perspiration on her forehead, which was creased by a frown, as if she were trying to make sense of something. She grimaced suddenly, raising a hand abruptly to her mouth and reaching with the other for her chair. But before she could grasp it she staggered, and her hand knocked the vase of flowers to the floor. She doubled over with a moan and sank to her knees.
"Oh!" Her cry was cut off as she was abruptly sick, her body convulsing violently, sending the chair tumbling onto its back.
Consternation spread out in ripples across the Reading Room, people rising to their feet, craning to see what had happened. But Nigel remained where he was, eyes bright, phone in hand, fastidiously recording every detail. She was being sick again, poor thing, writhing in agony as she retched over the red carpet.
One of the librarians was running forward. "What is it?" she demanded. "What's wrong?"
A man who had been seated at her table said, "She ... she's having some sort of attack," shrinking back with a look of horrified pity on his face. Last to respond, the two old codgers in the armchairs in front of the fireplace had belatedly risen to their feet. Everyone's attention was focused on the epicentre of the drama, unaware of Nigel taking surreptitious pictures of Marion thrashing about helplessly on the floor, and of the shock on people's faces as they witnessed this awful scene, all of them struck by the same terrible realisation that such a thing, whatever it was, could happen to anyone, at any time, even here in this sanctuary.
"Is there a doctor here?" the librarian cried.
Actually there were six in the room, but none of them of the medical kind, and they were quite unable to help.
"Are you calling an ambulance?" she demanded, and Nigel froze, realising suddenly that she was staring straight at him.
"Yes, absolutely!" He dialled triple nine, feeling himself the focus of attention now as people thankfully averted their eyes from Marion. He spoke fast and clearly to the operator, feeling he was doing it rather well, and when they wanted to know his name he gave it with a little thrill of excitement — he would be on the official record.
"Airways," the librarian said. "We have to make sure she doesn't choke." But that was easier said than done, for Marion's body was racked by convulsive spasms. It was some minutes before they subsided enough for the librarian to bravely stick her fingers into the young woman's mouth to make sure she hadn't swallowed her tongue. Kneeling in the mess, she cradled Marion's head on her lap and stroked her hair soothingly, the wild flowers scattered on the carpet all around. Nigel got some good shots of that.
Someone was gathering up the contents of Marion's bag, which had spilled over the floor. Nigel stooped to help. He picked up a hairbrush, with strands of her red hair coiled around its bristles, and reluctantly put it back into the bag. But he palmed the computer memory stick lying beside it, slipping it into his pocket.CHAPTER 2
KATHY ROSE TO HER feet as the Crown solicitor came through the courtroom door and nodded at her.
"Looks like you won't be needed after all," he said. "We're pretty much wrapped up."
"Good." She felt some relief, tempered by a sense of frustration that this stupid business had gone on so long. The trial of the Fab Five — so called by the cops because of their sharp suits and hairstyles and breezy attitudes — had been endlessly prolonged by their individual windbag barristers, each intent on muddying the waters around their own client at the others' expense, as well as by the highly imaginative alibis provided by their various perjuring mothers, girlfriends and mates. They had gone to a house to recover a drug debt, not realising that the man they wanted had moved on weeks before, and the new tenant was too drunk to explain their mistake before they beat him to death. They had taken a life, and would certainly be found guilty, but any satisfaction was dulled by Kathy's calculation, made while waiting on the corridor benches day after day, that all the time the police, the lawyers, the gaolers, the administrators, the forensic staff, the court officials, the jury and the witnesses had spent in achieving this would amount to another human lifetime, a good part of it her own. All for one utterly stupid mistake. This was not what she'd been made up to inspector for. She badly wanted a case that would allow her to flex her newly promoted investigative muscle, a case that would, well, mean something.
As she made for the main doors she felt her phone buzz in her pocket. It was Brock, sounding rushed. "Kathy, still tied up?"
A crisis was gripping Queen Anne's Gate along with the rest of Homicide and Serious Crime Command, with the terrorist alert level newly raised to "severe specific" at a time when an epidemic of spring flu had cut through the ranks. It had made her own inactivity all the more galling.
"Just finished, hopefully for good. I'm leaving now."
"I've had a call from Sundeep, steamed up about something. Couldn't get much out of him, except that it's about an autopsy he's doing. He said it was urgent. I'd go myself, but I'm due at a meeting in Broadway in ten minutes. Could you look after him?"
"Good. I'll get Pip to come and pick you up, shall I?"
That was another source of irritation: DC Philippa Gallagher, known as Pip, also as Flippa, on temporary rotation through the team, for whom Kathy was supposed to be acting as mentor. Too pretty and fragile-looking to be a police officer, Pip seemed oblivious to the stares of the male members of the team. She was very eager and had an annoying habit of asking questions to which Kathy didn't know the answers, then staring with wide-eyed attentiveness as Kathy tried to improvise a reply. It was probably the same look she'd given her teachers in the school she hardly seemed old enough to have left.
But when Kathy stepped out into the fresh air, her mood lifted. It was a beautiful day, sunlight glittering on the golden figure of Justice on top of the dome of the Old Bailey against a brilliant blue sky. She made her way through the knots of the usual suspects huddled along the footpath, and bought a coffee across the road, then stood in the sun, waiting, wondering what Brock's favourite pathologist was in a panic about.
By the time the unmarked car slid to a stop at the kerb in front of her she felt ready even for DC Gallagher.
As a sergeant Kathy had occasionally been called "skip," but no one had ever called her "boss" before. She rather liked it. The girl gave her a big grin, and Kathy smiled back; maybe she'd been unfair to her. Pip was so keen, and Kathy had a sudden vivid memory of herself on her first murder case after making sergeant. That was when she'd first met Brock, and, come to think of it, Sundeep Mehta. It seemed a long time ago.
When they arrived at the mortuary they saw the little doctor waiting for them by the front desk, chatting up the receptionist with a kind of extravagant bonhomie that Kathy thought, as she caught sight of him, looked rather forced. The woman turned away to answer a phone call, Sundeep frowned, glanced furtively at his watch, then wheeled around to see Kathy and Pip approaching. He brightened, slipping on the cavalier persona he liked people to see.
"DS Kolla!" he beamed, teasingly formal. "How nice to see you again."
"DI," she corrected. "I've been promoted."
He raised his hands in mock horror at his gaffe. "Inspector! Of course, I did hear. And so very well deserved. I've told Brock often enough that you're the only one to be trusted to do a decent job in that place. I'm so pleased he sent you. And who is this?"
"Don't flirt, Sundeep. This is DC Gallagher — Pip."
"How do you do, Pip." He shook her hand delicately, as if it might bruise easily, then gave them both visitors' tags. "And why shouldn't I flirt? Am I too old? Wouldn't you call that discrimination, Pip?"
The usual patter, Kathy thought, but all the same she sensed his heart wasn't in it. He was worried about something.
He led them over to the stairs and they descended to a corridor and an overpowering smell of fresh paint. It was sharply cooler down there, and somewhere up ahead a radio was playing tinny music. They reached a pair of double swing doors and Sundeep led the way into a brightly lit room in the centre of which was a series of stainless-steel tables. On the nearest a woman's body was stretched out, naked and recently dissected, but not yet reassembled. Kathy sensed Pip's stride falter at the sight. Her eyes moved from the woman's opened abdomen to her scalp pulled forward over her face, the top of her skull neatly severed, the brain removed.
Kathy turned her attention to Sundeep, who offered her a photograph of a young woman, head and shoulders. Even without the stainless steel on which her red hair fanned, Kathy would have known that she was dead. Her green eyes were open but sightless, her flesh like yellow wax.
"Her name is Marion Summers," Sundeep said. "She collapsed yesterday in the London Library in the West End. She was sick and passed out. When the ambulance arrived she was in a coma, from which she never woke. She was wearing a medical alert bracelet that said she suffered from type one diabetes, and a witness said she'd had fainting spells recently. The ambulance crew assumed this was the reason for her collapse, as did the doctor who treated her in A and E. They wondered if she might be in the early stages of a pregnancy, which can upset the insulin-sugar balance. She died ninety minutes after admission.
"I performed the autopsy a couple of hours ago. The toxicology results aren't back yet, of course, and I may be jumping the gun, but I'm sure I'm right. There were distinctive signs — severe haemorrhaging of the mucosa, for instance. Then when I opened her stomach I noticed the smell, quite faint, a bit like garlic. Here ..."
He reached for a beaker containing some dark fluid and sniffed it like a connoisseur, wrinkling his nose, then offered it to Kathy. Reluctantly she did the same, then shook her head. "I don't know." She turned to Pip, whose eyebrows rose in consternation, and Kathy handed the flask back to Sundeep.
"No, well, anyone else probably wouldn't have noticed, because this is so unusual now, in this country — the first case I've come across, to tell the truth. But I remember that smell so well from my student days, in India. We opened up a number of victims — well, the stuff was readily available, you see, in herbicides and pesticides and industrial processes and God knows what. And they say now that the whole Bengal basin is sitting on a vast layer of it, and people are sinking their wells into it and drawing it up — my God, they say millions may die."
Kathy waited, but he seemed momentarily at a loss. "What are we talking about, Sundeep?" she asked gently.
"Arsenic, Kathy. I'm almost sure that she died of arsenic poisoning."
He saw the sceptical lift of her eyebrow and nodded quickly. "Yes, yes, I know, arsenic in the library, all very Agatha Christie. A hundred years ago arsenic was the height of fashion in England. You could buy it over the counter at the chemist, freshen your complexion with it, treat your syphilis, kill your rats, poison your husband ... but not now. Where would you get hold of arsenic today?" He paused, then stressed, "It is very unusual, Kathy."
"It does seem unlikely, doesn't it, Sundeep? Shouldn't we wait for the test results?" She suspected there was some agenda here that Sundeep was holding back. She waited, he sighed.
Excerpted from Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland. Copyright © 2009 Barry Maitland. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A bit drawn out.
In the London Library, Ph.D. candidate Marion Summers researches nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite artists when she suddenly crumples and drops dead. Since Marion suffered from diabetes, the assumption by all who knew her is the disease caused her death. Recently promoted Detectives Inspector Kathy Kolla leads the official investigation, her first time in charge of a case, though she also expects the medical examiner will determine the cause of death to be related to diabetes. However, instead the medical examiner finds arsenic inside Summers' body. Kolla is in charge of the homicide investigation. The cop learns Summers was focusing on the use of arsenic and other poisons by the Pre-Raphaelites. Her theories were upsetting the academic circles as being too way-out. However, that should not be a motive for murder. With Detective Chief Inspector Brock's mentoring, Kolla looks into the personal non-academia life of the victim finding several people who might want to kill her and who had the opportunity to poison her, using ironically what Summers was studying as the means which remains difficult to ascertain. This is an exciting fresh British police procedural as DI Kolla heads her first investigation as the lead with DCI Brock supporting her. The story line is fast-paced and filled with plausible twists that enhance the inquiry. Fans of the series will enjoy this super Kolla-Brock collaboration. Harriet Klausner