The Outcast Dead(3)
Author:Elly Griffiths


    Michelle comes out of the kitchen when she hears his key in the lock. As usual she looks beautiful, still wearing her work outfit of tight grey dress and high heels. Her blonde hair is tied back in a complicated French plait and her careful make-up is only slightly smudged around the eyes. The house is filled with the savoury aroma of shepherd’s pie. It is true, as Nelson’s mother is always telling him, that he really does have the perfect wife. What would it be like to come home to Ruth? She’d probably be slouched on the sofa with her cat, drinking wine and watching intellectual crap on the telly. Nelson shakes his head, annoyed with himself. Why the hell is he thinking about Ruth?

    ‘Hi love,’ says Michelle, inclining her scented head for a kiss. ‘Good day?’

    ‘Bloody awful.’

    ‘Your mum rang to say she’d seen you on TV.’

    Nelson groans, opening the fridge and searching for a beer. As if things weren’t bad enough, now his mother’s on the warpath.

    ‘It’s that case,’ he says. ‘The woman with her kids. All the press are on to it. We’ve even had calls from the States. Whitcliffe’s in seventh heaven.’

    Gerry Whitcliffe, Nelson’s boss, adores publicity. One of the many ways in which he and Nelson are diametrically opposed.

    ‘Do you really think she did it?’ asks Michelle, getting the plates out of the oven. ‘Killed all three of her children?’

    Nelson sits at the kitchen table and holds the sweating beer can against his forehead. ‘I don’t know,’ he says wearily. ‘But I have to consider the possibility. That’s my job.’

    *

    The problem is he does think she did it. As soon as he saw Liz Donaldson, he suspected her. He hadn’t been the first on the scene when the hospital had reported a sudden infant death. That had been DS Judy Johnson with her training in child protection and family liaison, not to mention bereavement support, grief counselling and all the rest of it. Judy had visited the Donaldsons’ home with the family doctor, following police procedure. She had asked sensitive questions and had seen the site of death (a cot in an upstairs bedroom). Judy had reported that the mother displayed the calm, almost disconnected, manner of a person deeply in shock. That had set Nelson’s alarm bells ringing for a start. Calm? Disconnected? If anything happened to one of his daughters he’d be climbing the walls. He remembered the occasion last summer when Kate was in danger and Ruth’s wild eyes as she’d clung to him, begging him to save their daughter. Calm certainly didn’t describe either of them. But Judy said that it was a perfectly natural reaction. ‘She’ll be feeling unreal, almost as though she’s sleepwalking. Remember, she’s already lost two babies. She won’t be able to believe that it’s happening again.’

    But, of course, it was this tragic history that had sent Nelson to Liz Donaldson’s door. One infant death and you get a caring family officer, three and you get a DCI with a notebook and a nasty suspicious mind. Judy had accompanied him, checking all the time that he was being sympathetic enough. And he had felt sympathetic, of course he had. The woman had just lost a child, for God’s sake. And Liz Donaldson was, at first glance, very likeable. She was tall and slim with short, blonde hair and a low, attractive voice. She had greeted them that day without animosity, seeming to accept the continuing police intrusion as just another burden that she had to bear. She had been on her own, which surprised him. Judy said there was a husband but they were separated.

    ‘That was quick. The kid was only a few months old.’

    ‘David was eight months old,’ said Judy, emphasising the name. ‘And the marriage hadn’t been going well for some time. The deaths of Samuel and Isaac put a tremendous strain on the parents.’

    ‘All boys,’ Nelson had commented.

    ‘Yes. Which makes it more likely that we’re looking at some genetic disability.’

    Biblical names, thought Nelson. But he kept this thought to himself.

    Liz had invited them in. The terraced house was painfully tidy, the smell of lilies almost overpowering. Lilies for death, Nelson’s mother always said. The front room was full of cards and flowers. Nelson wondered if Liz had been thinking about David’s birth, less than a year ago, and whether the house had been full of flowers then. But now, of course, the tone was muted. Mauves and purples, footsteps on sand, angels and sad teddy bears. Deepest sympathy, in our prayers, safe in the arms of Jesus. Sitting on the edge of Liz Donaldson’s sofa, Nelson had surprised himself with a powerful animal instinct to run, to put as many miles between him and this tragedy-filled room as possible. But Judy was leaning forward, asking Liz how she was doing, whether she was getting enough sleep, enough support …

    ‘Mum’s just left,’ said Liz. ‘Bob was here yesterday but he was in pieces, poor thing. Sometimes I think it’s harder for men.’

    Bob must be the ex-husband, Nelson noted. He thought he detected something almost smug in Liz’s tone. Bob was going to pieces but Liz sat, pale yet still undoubtedly whole, answering their questions with sad dignity.

    ‘I’m so sorry, Liz,’ said Judy. ‘But we’ll have to ask some questions about Samuel and Isaac. Is that OK?’

    ‘It’s OK.’

    ‘Samuel was six months old when he died and Isaac just over a year?’

    ‘That’s right.’

    ‘Did you ever find out anything about the cause of death?’

    Liz looked away, gazing unseeingly at a card showing a lurid night sky etched with the words ‘Safe in heaven’. ‘Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy. That was what it said on the certificates.’

    Nelson and Judy already knew this, having seen the paperwork. SUDI is coroner code for an unexplained death which doesn’t need further investigation. Nelson wondered who carried out the autopsies.

    ‘Must have been hard,’ said Judy, ‘not having any answers.’

    ‘It was almost the hardest thing,’ said Liz. ‘We just didn’t know why. Neither Bob or I smoke, we’re not asthmatic, neither of us have any heart problems. When Sammy died it was just possible to think that it was just one of those terrible things. But when Isaac was taken …’

    Taken, thought Nelson. Odd choice of word. But Judy had been sympathising and empathising, all the time skilfully extracting the pattern of events. They had found Samuel dead in his cot one morning, with Isaac he had seemed listless and floppy, they had rushed him to hospital but he had died in A and E. David, like his older brother, had been found cold and blue after an afternoon nap.

    ‘I knew he was dead,’ said Liz, ‘but I kept trying to revive him. I kept on, even after the paramedics told me it was no good.’

    Nelson made a mental note to check this story.

    ‘You’re a nurse, aren’t you?’ Judy was saying.

    ‘I was. Before I had … before the boys were born.’

    The boys. It made them sound like a family, a happy band of siblings. But Liz Donaldson only ever had one child at a time, each boy dying before his brother was born. Nelson tried, and failed, to think how this must feel. He remembers now that Liz had suddenly leant forward and grasped Judy’s arm.

    ‘Do you have children?’

    Judy had looked for a moment as if she might not answer but, in the end, she said, very quietly, ‘Yes.’

    ‘How many?’

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