By Ben Mimmack
Inspector Forsyth looked across at the doctor and considered whether to unbutton his trousers. Dr. Tyler was driving them both to a black-tie Christmas dinner in Devizes and Forsyth’s suit trousers were a relic of a younger and fitter past. The cummerbund would hide the undone button, but he doubted he could complete the procedure without Tyler noticing. Tyler was a good friend, but an inveterate gossip and Forsyth could well imagine the doctor telling the story of his straining trousers with some relish next time he was at the station.
Forsyth sucked in his stomach and resolved to conduct the operation in the toilet as soon as they arrived at the hotel.
Tyler’s voice brought Forsyth back to the present and he focused on the scene up ahead. It had been dusk when they left, but night had since fallen and the flashing lights of a patrol car reflected against the black of the woods. Forsyth was reminded of the Christmas trees that had started to appear around town. A hard frost had already set in and he could see several people stood by the side of the road, their breath freezing into clouds that eddied in the lights before dissipating upwards.
“We’d better stop and see if we can help.” Forsyth said.
Tyler nodded and brought his car to a halt several metres behind the patrol car. The two men got out and walked over to the group.
The patrol car was parked next to a ditch at the point where another car, a venerable Jaguar, had ploughed nose first downwards. Forsyth guessed the driver had hit a patch of black ice and lost control. These country roads were notorious for it.
“Good evening” said Forsyth.
He saw a young constable leave the group and walk over.
“DI Michael Forsyth. Is everyone OK?”
“Well, no sir” the constable was young and excited. Forsyth guessed he was enjoying the break from the routine.
“Perhaps I can help. I’m a doctor” said Tyler.
“Well sir, you can take a look by all means, but I think it’s probably too late. He’s in the passenger seat” said the constable.
“It doesn’t look like much of a crash. Everyone else seems fine” Forsyth gestured to the group nearby. Now he was closer, he could see that they were three young men. Late twenties perhaps.
“Yes, it’s strange sir. I happened to drive past just after it happened. The front of the car is hardly dented. They would have been going no speed at all when they left the road. And the dead man doesn’t have a mark on him. There’s one thing…”
But Tyler had grabbed his medical bag and clambered down into the ditch, so Forsyth turned to watch. The car doors were all open and he was able to lean into the passenger side without touching anything. Forsyth saw him reach his right hand inside the car and assumed he was testing for a pulse. After a moment, Tyler shook his head and straightened up.
“Mike, you should come and take a look” he said.
His tone was neutral, but the two of them had worked together long enough that Forsyth knew this was more than professional courtesy. Forsyth clambered down into the ditch, offering a silent prayer that he wouldn’t fall into the mud, and caught himself on the side of the car.
He bent to look inside. The car was colder than he’d expected, even given the open doors, and the man in the passenger seat was dressed in a new cashmere overcoat with an expensive looking scarf around his neck. On his hands he wore a pair of leather gloves, well-used and deeply weathered with age. Forsyth thought he could see a silver bracelet under the cuff of the coat. A small leather holdall was wedged into the footwell at his feet.
The dead man was probably in his late twenties and Forsyth suddenly realized that he looked familiar. The swept back blonde hair and patrician nose triggered some cue of recognition in him, even as the open staring eyes gave the man a wild, alien, countenance.
Forsyth turned and looked at Tyler.
“He looks familiar.”
“Aye. He’s Lord Baskerville” said Tyler.
“Ah” said Forsyth. The muttered acknowledgment a poor reflection of the strength of his feelings.
Lord Baskerville had recently inherited the family seat and consequent fortune from his father, the seventh Earl of Baskerville who had followed his wife into the grave several weeks before. The new Lord was well known to the public thanks to his upcoming marriage to a beloved actress and his face was frequently featured in magazines as well as listicles and sidebars of shame.
Forsyth pulled out his phone and dialed a number which was answered immediately.
“Forsyth? What is it? I’ve got a bloody situation here.”
“Yes sir, I know. In fact, I’m here now. We stopped to help when we saw the car.”
“You’re there? Thank Christ. Keep everything under control until I can get Brooks over there.”
DCI Brooks. Departmental golden boy in both looks and reputation. Younger than Forsyth, possessor of easy charm and ruthless ambition; Forsyth suspected his dinner suit would fit very well indeed.
“I’m happy to take charge of the case since I’m here sir.”
“Please do, until Brooks arrives and then pass it on to him.
”Forsyth sighed and put his phone back in his pocket.
“The Super is sending Brooks over to take charge” he said to Tyler.
Tyler opted for a diplomatic grunt and opened his boot to replace his bag.
Forsyth looked over at the group of men standing near the patrol car. One of the men glanced in his direction and caught Forsyth’s gaze. Forsyth started to walk over and the man moved to meet him.
“Are you police?” the question was more of a challenge. He was a big man. Tall and broad with large pink jowls framing an incongruously small, pink mouth.
The accent was just as Forsyth had expected. Cut glass consonants connected by syrupy vowels. He was dressed in jeans and a three-quarter length astrakhan coat with a silk paisley scarf loosely knotted at the throat. He wore expensive looking brown leather gloves, with a Rolex poking over the edge of the cuff.
“That’s right sir, Detective Inspector Forsyth” Forsyth started to pull out his warrant card, but the man waved it away dismissively. “Were you the driver Mr…?”
“Soames. Oliver Soames. No, Andy was the driver” Soames turned and indicated another member of the group behind him. “John’s dead is he?”
“I’m afraid so. Please accept my condolences, sir. Were you and his Lordship close?”
“Went to school together. Known him for years” Soames had the upper classes’ traditional disdain for personal pronouns. “Backed a business of his once – bad decision that. Lost thousands. No hard feelings though”
Soames barked a laugh, then caught himself and stopped.
“We were off to his stag weekend. Getting married next week, you know?” Soames stopped talking and clenched his jaw.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
Forsyth knew Brooks would be annoyed, but a man on the edge, like Soames, could often be persuaded to yield up valuable information that might be buried given time to reflect. Especially where friends were involved.
Soames looked at him for a few seconds and Forsyth was sure the man would refuse to say more, when suddenly he started talking.
“Had some sort of attack. Couldn’t breathe. I was in the back, but I could see in the mirror that he was gasping. It was ghastly. I shouted that he needed help and Andy looked over and sort of froze and then he slammed on the brakes. The car must have hit some ice on the edge of the bend and the car sort of slid into the ditch. As soon as we stopped, Andy leaned over and tried to help him.
“I sat there for a few moments. So did Hugh” Soames indicated the third man in the group. “I suppose we were in shock. Eventually we got out and opened the passenger door to try and help Andy, but it was too late. Then the police car turned up and the constable took over.”
Forsyth let the silence linger for a moment. In the distance vehicles could be heard on the A350, the sound floating over the trees. Otherwise, the only noise was the subdued murmuring from the two men near the patrol car.
“Did his Lordship often have attacks like this?” Forsyth asked.
“He had asthma. Reynaud’s too. Wasn’t good in the cold, poor chap” Soames barked another brief laugh and lapsed into silence again.
“Thank you Mr Soames.” Forsyth turned and made to walk back to the car but stopped almost immediately. “I’m sorry, one more thing. Why was his lordship wearing a coat in the car?”
Soames barked his laugh again.
“Because of Andy’s bloody useless car. The heating was broken. Packed in just after he set off apparently. Had to keep our coats on to stay warm.”
Forsyth thanked the man again and walked over to Tyler who was chatting to the constable.
“What’s raino?” he asked the surgeon.
“The witness mentioned it. He said Lord Baskerville had asthma and rainos and didn’t like the cold.”
“Reynaud’s. It’s a disease that reduces blood flow to the extremities when it gets cold. In fact, it makes sense. You remember his nose?”
Forsyth nodded. The dead man’s nose had been blue at the tip. Forsyth had put it down to his being dead.
Tyler continued “People with Reynaud’s experience numbness at the extremities in cold weather. It’s often associated with other chronic illnesses such as asthma.”
“Apparently, the heating in the car was broken. Do you think the cold could have brought on an asthma attack?” asked Forsyth.
“Bad enough to kill him so quickly?”
Forsyth nodded and Tyler thought for a moment.
“Sudden onset asthma attacks do kill and can do so quickly, but most of the time they’re linked with the inhalation of some substance that causes an allergic reaction. Did he mention anything getting inside the car?”
“No. But I didn’t ask specifically.” Forsyth thought of something. “Doctor, come with me a second.”
Forsyth led Tyler back down into the ditch, the sides now slippery with mud from repeated footsteps. He stood by the open door and indicated the dead man.
“Do you see something on his right wrist?”
Tyler pulled out a pair of large tweezers from a pocket and drew back the cuff of the man’s coat. The bracelet was a silver band, engraved with red letters that Forsyth was too far away to read. Tyler pulled out his phone and turned on the torch, leaning closer to the dead man’s wrist. His breath condensed in the cold air as he did so, hiding his face from Forsyth.
Tyler pulled back, turned off the light and put the phone back in his pocket.
“Latex allergy. It’s a medical alert bracelet.”“Could a latex allergy kill?” Asked Forsyth.
“Certainly, if it was bad enough. It could induce anaphylaxis leading to death. In fact, anaphylactic shock would present very similarly to a severe asthma attack.”
“So, which of these three pushed a latex glove into his face while the other two looked the other way?”
Tyler smiled. “He wouldn’t have to touch it. In severe cases, even being in the same room as latex can trigger an attack. It could have been placed somewhere in the car before the journey.”
“And no doubt, long gone now” said Forsyth bitterly. After a moment, he beckoned the constable over.
“Sir’ the constable said, eagerly.
“Did anyone leave the scene after you arrived?”
“No sir, I asked them to stay where they were.”
“And no one threw anything?”
“Threw sir? Like you mean threw something away?” the constable tried to hide his confusion and failed.
“Yes, into the trees for example.”
“Oh no sir, nothing like that.”
“And you arrived before they’d got out of the car?”
“Yes sir, well the fat one, he was stood next to the passenger side.” the constable indicated Soames. “The rest were still in the car. They got out after I pulled up.”
Forsyth thanked the man and turned to walk over to the other group, now returned to their full complement. He faced the man Soames had referred to as Andy.
“You were the driver I believe, sir?”
The man was taller than Forsyth. He had thinning sandy hair and was dressed in an ancient Barbour and an even more aged pair of cords that Forsyth was willing to bet he called “bags”. In concession to the cold, he wore a checked scarf and new looking leather gloves.
“May I ask your name, sir?”
The man so clearly contemplated saying no, that Forsyth almost laughed. In the end, he seemed to decide cooperation was the better course.
“You were a friend of his Lordship?”
“Ah, I see.”
“Yes, although we were closer than that sounds. He was an only child and so was I. My parents died young, so his took me in since there was no other family. We basically grew up together.”
“I’m sorry for your loss sir. One question if I may? I understand his Lordship had fairly serious allergies?”
“I think so” Langdon said vaguely “Asthma too, I think. We didn’t really talk about it.”
When he said this, Langdon’s voice shook. He shivered, shoved his hands in the pockets of his overcoat and hunched his shoulders forward; turning his back on the car in the ditch as he did so.
“The heating wasn’t working in your car, I understand?”
“What’s that?” Forsyth could see the man focus on the present with an effort. “Oh yes, the bloody heater packed in just as we set off. The old girl is a bit of an old bucket of bolts, I’m afraid.”
As he considered the car and his clothes, Forsyth began to think that what he had assumed to be genteel shabbiness on Langdon’s part might actually be evidence of economic hardship.
“Did you pick his Lordship up before you headed off for your stag weekend?” he asked.
Langdon had become distracted again. Forsyth could see him twisting the fingers of his gloves as if he were trying to break them in. He repeated his question.
“What? Oh no. I’ve been staying with him for a few days. I’m between flats. He was good enough to let me have the old sofa. We left together and picked up Olly and Hugh on the way.”
Forsyth opened his mouth to ask another question, but just at that moment, an Audi A4 crept round the bend, its headlights highlighting the tableau of cars and static onlookers in harsh, halogen, light. After the lights swept over him and the car passed, Forsyth recognised DCI Brooks in the passenger seat. The outer half of his strawberry blonde hair illuminated by turns in red and blue by the lights of the patrol car.
Forsyth excused himself from Langdon and walked over to the Audi. Brooks opened the door and stepped out, pulling on a dark blue woollen overcoat that Forsyth couldn’t help but feel was intended as a rebuke to his own stained anorak.
“Good evening, Inspector. Thank you for holding the fort.”
Brooks wasn’t looking at him. He was surveying the scene. Getting his bearings.
“Is there anything I should know before you get on your way?” Brooks continued.
Forsyth savoured the moment and allowed it to stretch for a second or two before he replied.
“I believe I should reveal the identity of the murderer, sir.”
The effect was most satisfactory thought Forsyth. All Brooks’ studied coolness disappeared in an instant and his head snapped round to face Forsyth.
“Murderer? This is an RTA, surely?” said Brooks, his voice pitched a little higher than usual.
“Cold blooded murder, sir. Come with me.”
Forsyth walked over to Langdon who was still standing where he had been when Forsyth excused himself.
“Mr Langdon?” said Forsyth.
“Mmm?” Langdon murmured, almost automatically. He was staring at the car in the ditch.“
This is Detective Chief Inspector Brooks. He’ll be managing the investigation into the murder of your cousin” said Forsyth.
“Murder?” Forsyth almost jumped at the sudden exclamation. “He had an asthma attack.”
“Brought on by deliberate exposure to an allergen, sir.”
“Nonsense! He was in the passenger seat of a car with three other people in it. Someone would have seen something” Langdon was almost shouting now. Soames looked up at the noise and walked over.
“What would we have seen?” asked Soames.
“Thank you for joining us, sir” said Forsyth “A quick question, if I may. His Lordship’s bag was at his feet in the passenger well. Why didn’t he have it in the boot?”
“No room. It was in there when Andy picked us up, but we couldn’t fit all four bags in there. As the passenger he had the most room at his feet, so he took his bag” said Soames.
“And that was unfortunate for you, I think” Forsyth turned to Langdon.
“What are you talking about?” Langdon said truculently and twisted the fingers of his gloves.
“I imagine you didn’t want your cousin to put his gloves on until you’d got to the house.”
“Are you saying I killed my cousin?” Langdon’s voice was suddenly as cold as the weather.
“I noticed your gloves, sir. They’re very new and yet the rest of your clothes are old and worn. His Lordship’s clothes, on the other hand, are new, but his gloves are worn. Would you mind removing your gloves for me?”
Langdon looked at him sullenly before pulling off one of the gloves.
“Please hold it open for me?” said Forsyth.
Langdon complied and Forsyth shone a torch inside.
“Yes, I thought so” Forsyth indicated that Brooks should look.
“What is that?” asked Brooks.
“I think we’ll find it’s latex, pushed down into the end of each of the fingers. The dead man was extremely allergic to latex” Forsyth explained to the senior man.
Langdon started to walk briskly down the road, away from the scene. Forsyth nodded to the constable who trotted after him for a few steps, caught him up and firmly grasped him by the elbow. After a brief struggle, Langdon relented and allowed the constable to lead him back. Where he stood, silent, staring at the car in the ditch.
Later, after PACE rights had been read and scene of crime analysis started. Brooks walked over to Forsyth.
“Are you sure you’re right?” asked Brooks “He would have taken the gloves off as soon as he felt the resistance at the end of his fingers, surely?”
“It was well planned. Lord Baskerville had Reynaud’s disease. Doctor Tyler tells me he would have had numb fingers in cold weather. When he put his gloves on in the cold, he wouldn’t have felt a thing, until his body went into anaphylactic shock.”
Forsyth turned to look at Langdon, sitting in the back of the patrol car.
“If the car heater hadn’t packed in, Baskerville wouldn’t have put the gloves on until later tonight. I imagine Langdon had some plan to arrange a secret meeting where he could remove the latex and then ensure someone else found the body. Unfortunately for him, the dead man put his gloves on and died in the car. Then, stuck here with the police for company, his only option was to swap the gloves and hope for a chance to get rid of the latex. Which never occurred.”
“And the motive?” asked Brooks.
“Money. I imagine we’ll find that Langdon became the heir after the seventh Earl died. But the new Lord was getting married in two weeks. Marriage meant the prospect of children and, at the least, a dowager marchioness. By killing him now, Langdon could take the lot.”
Brooks nodded at that and dismissed Forsyth who knew Brooks was planning how best to ensure Forsyth’s role in proceedings could be reduced to the absolute minimum. He gave a mental shrug and walked over to Tyler who was watching the SOCO team at work on the car. Tyler looked up when Forsyth approached.
“Well, we missed our Christmas feast.” Tyler said.
Forsyth looked at his watch.
“We can still get a drink though. Lead the way doctor.”
Tyler walked ahead to the car and unlocked the door, turning to face Forsyth as he did so. Forsyth stopped as he reached the car and looked back, taking one last look at the scene. With his back to Tyler, he reached under his cummerbund and released his top button. Then he turned and opened the passenger door.
“OK?” asked Tyler.
“Most satisfactory.” said Forsyth, with relief.
Bio: Ben lives in Dallas with his wife and two small boys. In addition to short stories, he writes screenplays and unfinished novels. He has published in The Yard: Crime Blog previously.