Sheila gestured to D I Bones to go through to the kitchen. She followed him dejectedly. Bob rose to his feet as D I Bones came in. “Sheila?”
D I Bones introduced himself to Bob. “And you are, sir?”
“Um. Bob Barker. I’m a colleague of Sheila’s. Sheila, are you alright?” He took her arm and led her back to her chair. “Sit down, Sheila.” His mind seemed clearer now, and it was working overtime. Was she in trouble with the police? Had he been in danger? Perhaps she was a notorious predator of some kind?
“D I Bones, Sheila seems to have had a bit of a shock. Could you tell me what’s going on?”
“Mr, Dr, Barker. I just wanted to ask Sheila a few questions. D I Bones was very interested in Sheila’s reaction to the mention of Gareth Jones. He never liked to jump to conclusions, but she did seem to have ‘guilty’ written all over her. “It’s confidential Mr, Dr Barker,” he added.
Bob stood up a bit straighter. “Mr. I’m sure Sheila won’t mind me staying to support her” he said, bravely. Sheila nodded. “Now, let’s all get comfortable. Would you like a drink, D I Bones?” He lifted the bottle of wine from the table.
“Coffee’d be good.” D I Bones replied. “Black, no sugar.”
“Right you are.” Bob turned confidently towards the kitchen worktops. He had no idea where anything was, of course. Everything was neatly put away, just as he liked it himself, but that didn’t help. He looked for the kettle. Shit. There was one of those espresso machines. He hadn’t a clue how to use it.
D I Bones was watching with interest. “Instant’s fine” he suggested.
“Right you are.” Bob tried the cupboard above the kettle. That’s where he would have kept the coffee. Bingo. Instant coffee, a variety of teas, and mugs. He checked the water in the kettle and switched it on. He looked over at Sheila. She looked utterly dejected, and seemed to be oblivious to both of them. He smiled brightly at D I Bones. “Won’t be a minute.”
He looked back in the cupboard. Camomile tea? Wasn’t that good for calming people down? He got out a teabag and prepared one alongside D I Bones’ coffee.
“Sit down, D I Bones” he suggested. “Here you go. Sheila, I’ve made you a camomile tea” he added, a little more loudly. He touched her on the arm. She looked up at him, and then at the mug. “Camomile tea?”
D I Bones cleared his throat. “Mrs, Dr Thompson. You seemed rather upset when I mentioned Gareth. Perhaps you could tell me why?”
He was pleased with this opening. Neutral, not leading, not accusatory. Sheila didn’t look up. “I know I shouldn’t have done it” she said quietly. “I know I shouldn’t have let him provoke me so much. But I wasn’t very well, and something just snapped.”
Surreptitiously, D I Bones slid his notebook from his pocket and flipped it open. “Snapped?” he prompted her.
“Day after day. Week after week. I asked him to stop. But he just wouldn’t.” She still didn’t look up. “I just couldn’t take it any more.” She fell silent.
“How well did you know Gareth?”
“Every day, he was in my garden. Grubbing up my cuttings. Squashing the seedlings. Messing on the annuals.” D I Bones looked a bit worried. She sounded quite mad. Not to mention delusional. He wondered if she’d need to be Sectioned. Lilian had said she’d had a breakdown recently.
Bob looked sympathetic. He was a keen gardener and he knew how annoying it was when all your hard work was destroyed. His neighbour had really annoying cats. He reached out and took Sheila’s hand.
She looked up at this. “But I didn’t realise I was doing anything wrong. I just wanted to make him go away. It was only a little bit, in some meat I’d cooked him, to make him a bit sick. I suppose I didn’t calculate the dose properly.”
Bob withdrew his hand. He put the lid back on the casserole. “I’ll just pop this back in the oven.”
“Did he die in pain?” Sheila asked D I Bones.
“Er. I don’t think so. Probably not.” This wasn’t quite going as he’d expected. In all honesty, he’d been sure that Lilian was a crank. He just hadn’t wanted her complaining to the local paper about him, so he’d said he would come and sort it out straight away. She looked like the type to complain. “Do you understand the seriousness of this incident, Sheila?” he asked her gently.
“Before we go down to the station, I just want to check a couple of more urgent things with you. I haven’t yet been able to trace Gareth’s, er, family. Do you know how I can get in touch with them?”
She gestured to her left. “They live next door”. Not in Wales, then, thought D I Bones. That would make things easier. “Do you know their names?”
Sheila looked at him as though he was slightly dim. “Of course I do, they’re my neighbours. Reginald and Barbara.”
“Reginald and Barbara Jones” said D I Bones, as he made a note.
“no, Akala. Reginald and Barbara Akala” Sheila corrected him.
“Oh. OK.” D I Bones scribbled in his book. ‘Akala. Stepdad?’ He tried to decide what to do next. He’d better go and see the neighbours. Sheila didn’t seem much of a threat, but he’d better not leave her here while he went next door to see the parents. He’d better call for backup. “If you’ll just excuse me for a moment, Sheila, er, Mr, Dr Barker, I just need something from the car.”
He opened the front door. Lilian was standing shivering on the top step.
“Mrs Hankin. I thought you were going to wait in the car.” Lilian burst past him. D I Bones followed her. This wasn’t quite what he’d intended.
“Did she do it? I knew it! I knew it!”
Sheila got to her feet, considerably more rapidly than her previous dejected appearance might have predicted. “Lilian? What are you doing here?”
“I know all about Gareth, Sheila, and I thought it was my civic duty to tell D I Bones. It was in your notebook!”
Sheila looked at her, utterly bewildered. “Gareth? Duty? Notebook?” A thought seemed to come to her. “Wait a minute. Detective Inspector? Since when does a Detective Inspector bother himself with a cat?”
“A cat?” the other three spoke in unison.
“Yes, next door’s cat. Gareth. He was constantly messing up my garden. It was really bothering me. You know, it was when I was ill. I couldn’t keep it in perspective. They couldn’t seem to stop him. So I, so I put out a bit of food with some of my anti-depressants in to make him sick.” The three of them were staring at her.
“I didn’t mean to hurt him, in fact I didn’t know that I had, until you came round. I was a bit worried, though. I haven’t seen him for weeks. I didn’t mean to hurt him.” she repeated. “I’m very sorry.”
Bill seemed to recover first. “D I Bones. Are you investigating a cat?” The penny dropped. “Are you talking about the lecturer who was found dead in the woods?”
D I Bones nodded. “That’s my investigation.”
Bill turned to Sheila. “Sheila, do you know Gareth Jones? The biology lecturer who’s died?”
She shook her head. “No, Lilian mentioned it earlier. How sad. What happened to him?”
D I Bones pulled himself together. “I think we’ve got a bit confused. You’re right, Sheila. I don’t usually bother myself with cats.”
Sheila looked up “you mean. I’m not in trouble?”
“Well, it probably is an offence to poison a domestic pet,” suggested D I Bones, making a mental note to look that up later, “but I do have a more serious investigation on my hands. Perhaps Gareth the cat is alive and well? Let’s not worry about him, for the moment, anyway.”
Sheila looked relieved. She turned her head. “Lilian, what on earth are you doing in my house?”
Lilian had been standing slack-jawed in the middle of the kitchen. She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, but no sound emerged. She tried again. “I. I. I was just doing my civic duty” she mumbled.
Sheila narrowed her eyes. She seemed to have recovered a little. She stared at Lilian. The effect was quite powerful, although in fact she was trying to remember one of her mantras from the back of the notebook. Be assertive. Assume you are right. “Lilian. Let me get this straight. You stole my notebook. You copied it. You called the police.”
That didn’t seem to make sense. What was in her notebook that would have caused Lilian to call the police? It seemed to make sense to Lilian, however. She started to gabble. “You’d crossed his name out. You said you wanted to get rid of me. You’d got Bill on the list as well.”
Sheila crossed the room to her briefcase and took out her notebook. She flicked through the pages. “Oh dear, Lilian. You seem to have jumped to an unevidenced conclusion.” She shook her head sadly “I think you’ll find that I just wanted to get away from you. That’s not quite the same, is it? And there was me thinking that you taught Criminal Law. Innocent till proven guilty?”
Lilian seemed lost for words. Sheila continued, in a voice dripping with concern. “I’m sorry you saw my private notes. Perhaps they were a bit, um, crude. But finding you difficult to get on with doesn’t make me, um, a murderer. Does it?” She smiled at Lilian, looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Inside, she felt nothing but triumph. Take that, Lilian. She wished she could have recorded the whole speech for her counsellor.
The men were both transfixed. D I Bones was wondering if he’d stepped into a parallel world. In his experience, two people who hated each other this much would be tearing at each other’s hair by now. Bob had seen enough academic ‘discussions’ to know that there was a winner. He stepped forward and took Sheila’s hand.
For a moment, he wondered if he should raise it, in a sign to the others that the incident was over. He simply cleared his throat.
“Well, I’m glad that’s sorted out. I’m sure we’ll all be laughing about this tomorrow.” He didn’t sound amused, though. “Can I get anyone a drink?” he added, politely, but coolly.
D I Bones hadn’t touched his coffee. He looked at the mug. “Um. No. Thank you. I’d probably better get back to the office.”
Bob looked at Lilian.
“Um. No. I’d better get a lift back with you, D I Bones. I’ve left my car at the University.”
D I Bones sighed. “OK.” He looked as though he could think of quite a few better things to do than to give Lilian a lift.
“Fine” Bob headed for the front door. “We’ll get back to our meal, then. Nice to meet you, D I Bones.” He shook the policeman’s hand. “Lilian.” He gave a slight nod in her direction. He was a very polite man.
He shut the door firmly behind them and went back into the kitchen. Sheila had sunk back into her chair, looking pretty shell-shocked. Bob went over and put his hand on her arm. She looked up at him.
At that moment, the ridiculousness of the whole incident hit them both and they collapsed into uncontrollable giggles. “The cat!” “The anti-depressants!” “Lilian!”
After a while Bob wiped his eyes. “I don’t know about you, but I need a drink” he said.
“There’s another bottle of wine in the fridge” Sheila said.
Follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: Flat Inspection.