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‘You can do whatever you like. Be whoever you want to be.’
Nick’s mum had repeated these words until he came to believe them. She’d called it the creed of the imagination and its disciples were ‘imaginants’ who could transcend dull normality through the power of thought. Fifteen years ago, back in the nineteen sixties, she’d been into all that stuff. Drugs and flowers. Nick had been twelve when he’d found her dead, her long black hair spread out on the red satin eiderdown, and the scene was seared on his memory.
As he was dropping off to sleep he heard her soft voice whispering in his head. You can be whoever you want to be. And the next morning he woke refreshed, promising himself that he was going to make her proud.
He had to look the part so he put on a clean shirt and trousers and when he caught the bus he sat downstairs because the cigarette smoke upstairs made him wheeze. The woman in the opposite seat was in her forties with dark curls and a sensible navy coat. She avoided his gaze and stared out of the window and when the bus stopped outside the hospital she got off ahead of him.
If you walk into any situation with enough confidence, nobody will challenge your right to be there but he used the entrance by the hospital mortuary because he was less likely to be noticed. Once inside the building he strolled into the doctors’ locker room and helped himself to a white coat hanging on a hook near the door. He had his own stethoscope, a second-hand shop find, which he draped around his neck like a chain of office before strutting down the corridor, smiling at any pretty nurses who happened to be passing.
His confidence increased as he neared Casualty. He was into the role now. Doctor Nicholas Jones – dark, good-looking and only a couple of years out of Medical School. If anybody was to question him he had his story ready – but nobody ever did. Not that he was entirely ignorant about medical matters. He’d read some text books and he’d learned first aid at Scouts, shortly before he’d discovered girls and the delights of smoking in bus shelters.
Casualty was busy as usual and as he made his way down the corridor he almost cannoned into a worried-looking bald man who’d just emerged from a curtained cubicle. The man mumbled an apology without making eye contact and carried on walking.
Nick stopped by the cubicle the man had just left and paused for a moment, listening for the sound of voices from inside. When he heard nothing, he dodged through the curtain to greet his first patient of the day.
The man lying on the couch was fully dressed, middle aged with a large beer gut. Nick fixed a professional smile to his lips. ‘Good morning Mr, er . . .’ He picked up the clipboard lying on the trolley. ‘Mr Kenworthy. How are we today?’
The patient didn’t respond to his question. He lay there with his eyes closed, apparently asleep.
‘Mr Kenworthy. What seems to be the trouble?’ Nick gently shook the patient’s shoulder and waited for an answer that didn’t come. Then, after his third attempt to wake the man, he saw blood staining the pillow behind the patient’s head.
This was his chance to prove himself. Years ago in the draughty scout hut he’d practised resuscitation on a plastic dummy and he plundered his memory for the correct technique. The man’s thick lips felt cold and scaly as Nick covered his mouth with his own and blew. Once, twice, three times. But it had no effect. Then he tried pressing down on the chest but the memory of those first aid sessions at Scouts was frustratingly vague. After a few minutes he wondered whether to alert a nurse but, on the other hand, it was obvious that the patient was beyond help.
The patient’s jacket had been flung over the chair in the corner and when Nick went through the pockets he found some loose change, a set of keys and a dirty handkerchief. A wallet in an inside pocket contained two ten-pound notes and some business cards. J Kenworthy. Private Investigator. All manner of confidential work undertaken. A private eye. Come to think of it the man did have the alcohol-soaked world-weary look Nick associated with that particular profession. Raymond Chandler had always been his favourite author and he felt a thrill of excitement. Being a private eye would be more exciting than being a doctor so this was his chance to branch out.
In another pocket he found a small book filled with notes and addresses and he turned the pages, listening for approaching footsteps, realising that the longer he stayed there the more likely he was to be discovered. Eventually he stuffed the wallet and book into his pocket and calmly left the cubicle, swishing the curtain shut behind him.
As he retraced his steps down the corridor, he saw a woman in a navy blue sister’s uniform walking towards him. She looked familiar and it took him a few moments to realise that she was the woman who’d sat opposite him on the bus that morning.
A nurse hurried up to her. ‘Sister, can I have a word?’ And, to his relief, she bustled away. He made a swift escape because the last thing he wanted at that moment was to be summoned to another patient – a live one this time. He had other plans.
Back in the doctors’ changing room he discarded the white coat and donned his jacket. He’d already taken a risk that morning: if a nurse had entered the cubicle and found him with the dead body questions might have been asked. However, a touch of danger made him feel alive. And the private eye’s notebook held the promise of more excitement.
Nick sat in his bedroom going through the dead man’s notebook, transported to a new world of detection and deception. He loved reading about crime – especially murder. A few times he’d hung around at crime scenes, watching the police and learning. When a girl was found strangled near the cemetery the previous year, he’d pretended to be a plain clothes officer and asked a passing woman whether she’d seen anything suspicious. She hadn’t but playing the part had given him a thrilling feeling of power.
The notebook contained names and addresses. And notes outlining various cases. Divorce. Fraud. Missing persons, theft. The last entry was a Mrs Felicity Foster with an address and the words ‘accident or murder? written beside it. Then there was a name ‘York’ underlined twice but he couldn’t tell whether it referred to a person or the city.
The name Foster seemed familiar and Nick wondered whether he’d seen it in the newspaper. There was only one way to find out for certain. His step-mother, a hatchet-faced bitch who nagged him constantly to get himself a proper job, hoarded past copies of the local newspaper in the outhouse in case they came in useful. Perhaps this time they would.
After searching through the old issues of the Echo his hands were stained with newsprint. But he’d found what he was looking for. Two weeks ago a man had been found with fatal head injuries in an alley behind his house, apparently the victim of a fall; a tragic accident.
The report was frustratingly short on detail but the dead man was named as Jim Foster and his address matched the one in Kenworthy’s notebook. The report said Foster had left a widow called Felicity and, according to the neighbours, the couple had kept themselves to themselves.
Nick tore out the article and tidied the papers because his step-mother would give him a hard time if he left them in a mess. Then, still wearing his smart clothes and with Kenworthy’s business cards in his pocket, he set off to catch the bus.
He was a private investigator; a PI like in the books. He jumped off the bus and walked along the main road checking the street names until he found Courtdale Road, a tree-lined street of red brick terraced houses. He stopped at number sixteen and rang the doorbell.
The door was answered by a gaunt woman dressed in black from head to foot. She had raven black hair and a mouth that turned downwards at the corners.
‘Mrs Foster?’ Nick held out one of Kenworthy’s cards. ‘Nick Jones. I work for Mr Kenworthy.’
She hesitated for a second then opened the door wide. ‘Where’s Mr Kenworthy?’
‘He’s asked me to deal with your case while he’s away,’ Nick replied smoothly. ‘He sends his apologies.’
She showed him into an immaculately furnished front room and invited him to sit. Nick didn’t thank her because the private eyes of his imagination didn’t have time for niceties. He took out a notebook and pen and came straight to the point.
‘Mr Kenworthy’s filled me in on the case but I need to hear what happened to your husband in your own words,’ he said, feeling pleased with himself.
She nodded. For a grieving widow she seemed remarkably self-possessed. ‘Jim heard a noise in the alley and went to investigate. When he didn’t come back I went out and found him lying there. I called an ambulance but he was already dead. There was nothing anybody could do.’ She recited the words as though she’d rehearsed them over and over again.
‘What do you think happened?’
‘The police say he fell and hit his head on the ground.’ She hesitated. ‘But I know he was murdered.’
‘Did he have enemies?’
There was a long silence before she answered. ‘Jim’s brother Charlie was here a couple of hours before it happened. He threatened Jim; said he’d kill him. They’d fallen out over money, you see.’
‘You told the police?’
She pursed her lips. ‘Charlie’s lady friend said he was in the Rose and Crown with her when Jim died and the police believed her.’
‘So you hired Mr Kenworthy to prove she was lying?’
‘Yes. But first he had to find out who she was. She told the police she wanted to remain anonymous.’
‘Have you a photo of Charlie?’
He was surprised how quickly the picture was produced; an image of a bald man in a smart suit with a carnation in his buttonhole. He was sure he’d seen the man in the picture before, if only he could remember where.
‘Leave it with me,’ said Nick as he stood up to leave, putting the photograph in his inside pocket and promising to make inquiries at the Rose and Crown that evening.
There was a smile on his face when he boarded the bus back home. Being a private eye was the best job yet.
That night Nick lay awake in his narrow bed pondering over what he now thought of as ‘his case’. He’d visited the Rose and Crown the previous evening and although nobody was able to confirm that Charlie Foster had been in there with a woman on the night of his brother’s death, questioning the regulars had made him feel like a real detective.
He’d promised to report back to Felicity Foster and as he boarded the bus that morning, he looked round in case he was being followed. Private eyes faced all sorts of danger; irate spouses, crooks, men with revolvers. In the books they also attracted glamorous women – blondes in tight red dresses. He looked at his fellow passengers and pitied their dull little lives.
When he arrived at Mrs Foster’s house the front door was slightly ajar. He stepped inside, calling her name but the heavy silence made him uneasy. Various dramatic scenarios paraded through his mind. Then he heard a voice from the front room calling for help.
He rushed into the room and found Mrs Foster sitting on the sofa, twisting a handkerchief in her fingers. Then he saw the body on the floor.
‘He was going to kill me so I hit him with the poker. I had no choice,’ she whispered. She was close to tears. Nick’s first lady in distress. He just wished she looked more like Chandler’s beautiful, vulnerable dames.
It was time to take charge of the situation. ‘It was self-defence?’
She nodded vigorously. ‘He confessed to killing Jim and threatened to kill me as well. Will you move that poker. I can’t bear to look at it.’
As Nick bent down he suddenly realised why the photograph of Charlie Foster had seemed so familiar. Now he had a good view of the corpse’s face, he recognised him as the bald man who’d been hurrying away from Kenworthy’s cubicle at the hospital. This proved Mrs Foster was telling the truth. Charlie Foster killed Kenworthy because he was about to prove Charlie had killed his own brother – and now he’d targeted that brother’s widow.
‘Why would he want to kill you, Mrs Foster?’
‘Because I’d threatened to tell the police about the will.’
‘Their father’s. He divided his money between the two brothers but if Jim died first then his share was to go to Charlie. I didn’t realise the old man had arranged things like that until the solicitor told me after Jim died. Of course if Mr Kenworthy had succeeded in proving Charlie’s guilt, then the law wouldn’t have allowed him to benefit from his crime.’
‘As his widow shouldn’t you have got your late husband’s share anyway?’
Mrs Foster shook her head. ‘Jim’s father never liked me and his will specified that I had to pay Jim’s inheritance over to Charlie if Jim died first. I intended to contest it. That’s why Charlie became so angry.’
‘No jury will convict you if it was self-defence,’ Nick said with confidence. He saw himself looking after her, getting her a good lawyer, giving evidence on her behalf. It felt good.
She stood up. ‘I’d better call the police.’ She gave Nick a weak smile. ‘I think we both need a cup of tea. Can you put the kettle on?’
She picked up the telephone on the window sill but she waited until he’d left the room before making the call. A few minutes later he returned with the tea, eyeing the dead man on the floor as he entered the room.
‘The police are on their way,’ she said as he handed her the cup. ‘Will you stay with me until they get here? Please.’
Nick could hardly refuse. He was the private eye and she was the needy dame. The least he could do was wait with her until the cops arrived.
It wasn’t long before he heard police sirens getting closer.
‘Go now,’ she said, shooing him away with her hand. ‘You don’t want to get involved in this.’ It sounded like an order.
He looked at her, puzzled. ‘But you said . . .’
‘Use the back door. I’ll be okay.’
He was tempted to stand his ground but, in the face of her determination, he shot out into the back alley with a pang of regret that his role in the drama was over. Then, as he strolled towards the main road, he saw a figure at the end of the alley, blocking his way. It was a policeman which meant he was needed after all, maybe as a vital witness. He saw himself giving evidence; the centre of attention.
But to his surprise the officer hurtled towards him, handcuffs at the ready. The breath was knocked out of him as he was pushed to the ground, the words ‘you’re nicked’ ringing in his ears.
The evidence was stacked against Nick Jones. Mrs Foster had witnessed him attacking her brother-in-law and, in addition, a nurse had seen him emerging from Mr Kenworthy’s cubicle in the hospital dressed as a doctor.
Kenworthy had been found with a head injury not far from the Foster house and the police had treated his death as a robbery gone wrong because his wallet was missing. That wallet had been found in Nick’s possession and he’d also lied to Mrs Foster about being Kenworthy’s assistant so he was the obvious link between the private investigator’s death and Charlie Foster’s. No credence was given to Nick’s pleas of innocence because he was known to be a liar. A fantasist.
It wasn’t clear whether Jim Foster had also been a victim of Nick Jones’s fantasies but, whatever the truth, thanks to Mrs Foster’s eye-witness evidence the case against him for at least one of the murders was cut and dried, especially as his prints had been found all over the poker that killed Charlie Foster.
During his interview Nick tried to tell the detectives how Mrs Foster had duped him; that she’d probably killed her husband to get her hands on his money. She’d lied convincingly and it had been Charlie Foster rather than his sister-in-law who’d hired Kenworthy to investigate his brother Jim’s death. Felicity had most likely disposed of the private detective when he was getting close to the truth. Nick told them all about the father’s will and how Mrs Foster killed Charlie so that the money left to the brothers would come to her.
Nick knew this was all true but he wasn’t believed. He lived in a world of falsehoods. His deception at the hospital was exposed, as was his claim to be in a rock band and to be the cousin of one of the Beatles.
He was remanded for psychiatric reports. He’d go down.
Sister York was in mourning, although she couldn’t let anyone know it. She’d been seeing Charlie Foster regularly because he’d made her laugh and their time together provided relief from the stress of her job in Casualty and her marriage to a man who preferred football to herself. Charlie hadn’t been much to look at but she suspected she’d been falling in love with him. When she’d given Charlie an alibi for the time of his brother Jim’s death she’d insisted on discretion; she was a married woman after all.
She’d been on duty when Mr Kenworthy, the private investigator Charlie hired to find evidence against his sister-in-law, Felicity, was brought into Casualty. He’d died shortly after arrival but they’d left him in a curtained cubicle because things were busy that morning. Like everyone else she’d assumed the private investigator’s injuries had been sustained during a robbery. It hadn’t occurred to her that his death was connected with Jim’s and Charlie’s. After all, being a private investigator sounded to her like a dangerous sort of job.
Now, however, there was a picture of Kenworthy’s killer in the Echo and he’d been charged with Charlie’s murder as well. The report said Felicity Foster was devastated by her brother-in-law’s death – but Sister York had heard Charlie describe her as evil and manipulative. That’s why his father had specified in his will that Felicity wouldn’t get a penny if Jim died before her. Everything would have gone to Charlie. But now both brothers were dead she’d get the lot.
It took Sister York a few moments to realise why the murderer’s face looked so familiar. He was the man she’d sat opposite on the bus going to work on the morning Kenworthy was brought in. Then she’d seen him at the hospital – one of the many young doctors who helped out in Casualty.
This meant he couldn’t possibly have killed Kenworthy because he’d been found in Allerton and the bus she’d shared with the accused had been travelling in from the other direction. And why would the young man the papers called ‘the bogus doctor’ want to kill Charlie anyway? There was only one person with a motive to kill him – and the man he’d paid to investigate his brother, Jim’s death. Felicity Foster had every reason to dispose of all three men and Sister York wasn’t going to let an innocent man stand trial in her place.
Sister York picked up the telephone on her desk and called the police.
Felicity Foster, now known rather unoriginally as the Black Widow, was arrested two days later and Nick Jones was released without any apology. He’d been proved to be a habitual liar after all.
When Nick returned home that night he sat on his bed staring at Kenworthy’s business cards, his mother’s words echoing through his head.
You can be anybody you want to be. And he wanted to be a detective.
Find out more about author Kate Ellis here.
Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.