by Claire McNab
Reproductive specialist Dr. Brin Halstead has made quite a name for himself. To admirers the charismatic doctor is a visionary, his Halstead Clinic at the cutting edge of genetic research, but a breaking scandal has begun to paint a very different picture of a dangerous fanatic playing with his patients’ lives—and the laws of nature.When Halstead’s body is discovered, brutally bludgconed and burnt beyond recognition, Detective Inspector Carol Ashton must follow the bloody trail down a slippery slope of greed, corruption, and murder.
Tenth in the Carol Ashton Series.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1998.
Is this what it means to experience total dissociation? I was so furiously angry a few moments ago, so full of rage I lost it, absolutely lost it. It was exhilarating, satisfying, to let go of everything, to hit him that hard.
I heard his skull crack, and from that moment I was calm, outside myself. I remember watching the blood spray at each blow, hearing myself grunt with the effort, and noticing the dying sounds he made. And through all this I felt nothing but a detached interest.
So this is what it’s like to kill someone.
Fear and disgust will come later, I’m sure of that, but now I’m irritated that splashing the petrol around is taking so much time. I’ve got to be careful not to get any on myself.
I could almost smile. How stupid it would be for me to go up in flames along with the clinic and his body.
“Amateur,” said Hanover, the arson investigator, her scorn evident. “Splashed accelerant around this lab and the office next door, struck a match, and hoped for the best.” She wrinkled her freckled nose. “Petrol. You can still smell it.”
Stocky, her hair a frizz of auburn, she stood with hands on hips and surveyed the wreckage of the laboratory. Beside her, Carol stifled a yawn. She hadn’t had her customary early morning jog or the several mugs of black coffee that usually jolted her into alertness. The call had come in before dawn, and she’d dressed hastily in casual navy pants and top and flat shoes. Before she got into her car she’d whispered an apology to her neighbor’s German shepherd, Olga, who’d been waiting hopefully at the fence for Carol to take her on a run through the bush.
Carol studied the laboratory. The sprinkler system hadn’t been activated by the flames, so the damage was extensive. Carol could visualize the room as it had been. She’d seen the room, or one very like it, in some of the many self-promoting television appearances Dr. Brin Halstead had made during the last year.
Matching the elegant two-story, black-and-white exterior of the building, the laboratory walls and sleek benches had been pristine white. The rooms had held a variety of impressive laboratory instruments and gleaming machines. The glossy black floor, improbably, had seemed to be marble. And presiding over it, white coated, was the scientist-at-the-cutting-edge persona that Brin Halstead had cultivated. Carol remembered wondering if such photogenic perfection could really be a working lab or if it was something just for show, and was Halstead really a world-class fertility expert or was he an actor playing one?
The doctor would be pained to see the laboratory now. Water stood in pools or dripped from the seared ceiling, part of which had collapsed into the room. There was a greasy film over everything, and the heat had buckled the smooth white surfaces of the benches, burned away the upholstered seats of the black lab stools, exploded the computer monitor, and reduced instruments to lumps of melted glass and metal. Through the blackened, cracked glass of a wide picture window, the shrubs of an internal courtyard showed a blurred green. And everywhere the harsh stench of acrid smoke mingled with the unmistakable smell of scorched meat.
Hanover indicated the ceiling. “There’s nothing wrong with the automatic sprinkler system. It would have worked well, had it come on, but someone turned the water off, which meant the hydraulically-operated alarm bell didn’t function either. Sheer luck the cleaners came in when they did, or the whole building could have gone.”
“Are you sure the accelerant was petrol?”
“Pretty sure, but I’ll have a definite for you later today.”
They were interrupted by Robinson, a novice crime-scene technician, whom Carol had only seen once before. “Inspector Ashton? They’re moving the body now.” He spoke in a ringing, self-confident tone, but his face had a greenish pallor.
Carol nodded. “Fine.” She inclined her head toward the cluster of people gathered around the body in the middle of the lab. “Pretty rough?”
It seemed she’d ruffled his pride. “Seen worse,” he said, a little too loud. He hesitated, as though wondering if he should add anything, then he gave an awkward nod and hurried away.
Hanover gave a sympathetic grunt. “Nasty,” she said. “But I reckon the guy was dead before the fire. Even charred that way, you can see his head was smashed in.” She flipped a page in her notebook and moved away to study the pattern of scorching on the ceiling tiles.
Carol hadn’t looked closely at the body—she would have to do that at the postmortem—but that first glance at the grotesque, blackened carcass, contorted by the extreme heat of the fire, would dance at the edge of her imagination for a long time.
“It’s Robinson’s first crispy critter,” said an American voice behind Carol. “He’ll be outside tossing his cookies, any moment now.”
Hiding her dislike, Carol turned to Rafe Janach. “Crispy critter?” she said. “A charming Americanism.” Her tone was pleasant, and she felt sure that he had no idea what she thought of him. It had nothing to do with the fact that he had replaced her friend Liz Carey as head of the crime-scene team. Her aversion was based on something much more basic—a gut instinct that told her he was trouble. He had impeccable credentials from the States, seemed easy to work with, and delivered reports with admirable speed, but Carol sensed a sneering, denigrating side to him that came out in the faint smirk he sometimes wore, or the put-downs she heard him use on others, particularly women.
“So what would you Aussies say?” Janach asked, grinning. “A toasted cobber?”
Detective Sergeant Mark Bourke, moving close to them to get out of the way of the stretcher bearing the remains, gave Janach a mock frown. “Don’t even try to master our slang, mate. You’ll have Buckley’s chance of getting it right.”
Carol smiled at Bourke. He was solid, dependable, and deceptively bland, and she valued his professionalism more than that of anyone else she had worked with in the police service. Carol didn’t have many close friends, but Mark was one she trusted unconditionally.
Janach spread his hands. “Just trying to assimilate.”
Carol couldn’t help but compare the two men. Though they were of similar height, they couldn’t have been more different in looks or demeanor. Rafe Janach was greyhound thin, and moved restlessly, constantly gesturing with his long hands. He had sharp features and thick, fair hair. One of the first things he’d said to Carol was, “Well, well, another blond. We do have more fun, don’t we?”
Mark Bourke, increasingly self-conscious about his retreating hairline, had a very short crew cut, as if to minimize the contrast between scalp and his indeterminate brown hair. Physically he was strongly built, and he moved with a deliberate economy that was reflected in everything he did. His writing was neat, his desk immaculate, his case notes irreproachable.
Carol cleared her throat. The smell of the place was getting to her. She knew it would be in her clothes, in her hair. She said to Janach, “What’ve you got so far, Rafe?”
“Nothing that looks like a weapon, though we won’t know what we’re really looking for until after the postmortem. We have got a scorched jerry can that probably held gasoline.” He made a wide gesture. “Take a look. There’s a lot of stuff to sift through yet in the lab, and we haven’t even started on the office or the rooms upstairs. It’ll take the rest of the day, at least.”
Carol gave Bourke an interrogative look and he responded, “No forced entry, Carol. The window cracked from the heat, not from an attempt to get in, not that anyone could have come that way, as it’s a fully enclosed courtyard. The fire was discovered when the regular two-person cleaning team arrived around ten last night, and it hadn’t been burning very long or the whole building would have been destroyed.”
“And no one thought Halstead, or anyone else, would be inside?”
“Apparently Halstead preferred to come in very early in the day and expected his staff to do the same. That’s why the cleaning was always done in the evening. The body wasn’t found until three this morning when the fire brigade hazard team was mopping up. Anne’s taking statements from the cleaners right now. Do you want to see them yourself?”
“Not at the moment. I’m sure she can handle it.”
Anne Newsome had won Carol’s trust over several cases, and Carol was confident that the young constable would cover all the necessary questions with her customary thoroughness.
Bourke said, “So the scenario is that Halstead lets someone in—there are strict security measures for the Clinic, so all doors are secured at all times—and whoever it is smashes Halstead’s head to pulp, pours petrol everywhere, lights it, and gets out of here.”
“Having the petrol handy suggests premeditation,” said Carol.
“I don’t know,” said Janach, who’d been listening with his narrow head cocked. “Some people carry gas in the trunk as a precaution against running dry, don’t they?”
“Pretty cool,” said Bourke, “to impulsively batter someone to death and then have the presence of mind to go out to your car to collect something to start a fire.”
Janach shrugged. “I could do it.”
Carol, impatient with Janach’s presence, said, “It would help if we had a weapon. That would give some idea of whether the murder was premeditated or not.”
Her pointed tone wasn’t lost on Janach. “I better get back to it, then,” he said with a thin smile.
Watching Janach’s retreating back, Bourke said, “You don’t like him much, do you?”
“I’m indifferent, just so long as he does his job.”
Bourke looked at her sideways. “Yeah?” It was clear he didn’t entirely believe her. “I get the feeling he doesn’t altogether appreciate women in positions of authority.”
“Too bad,” said Carol, dismissing the subject. “Now, the corpse—are you sure it’s Halstead?”
“There’s no way we’ll get a visual identification, but I’d say it’s him. Underneath the body when they moved it a few minutes ago they found the keys to a Beemer—and a BMW registered to him is parked in the loading dock—plus a wallet with license and credit cards in his name.”
“Handy they weren’t incinerated.”
“Dental records should show for sure if it’s him.” He raised an eyebrow. “You’re thinking Halstead would fake his own death?”
Carol thought of the scandal that had recently engulfed Halstead Clinic, to the delight of the media, who had reported with gusto the details of the court case where a former client was suing Brin Halstead over fertility treatment, claiming that the baby his wife delivered wasn’t genetically related to either parent. The draconian Australian defamation laws made it difficult, but the media had managed to hint at further cases with even more sensational details. There had been much disappointment when the matter was abruptly settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
“I know it’s far-fetched,” said Carol, “but I have the feeling a Houdini act is something Brin Halstead might do.”
“His partner, Dr. Vail, might throw some light on that,” said Bourke. “He’s waiting outside, and not very patiently. Seems he’s got security worries about the confidential material in the clinic. He kept on mentioning high-profile clients, as though that would be a magic password in to see you.”
With a groan Carol said, “This is going to be a circus. We’ll have PR people and lawyers falling over themselves to find out what’s happened to their clients’ records.”
“Not to mention,” said Bourke, laughing, “those frozen samples of high-society sperm and whatever.” Abruptly, he sobered. “And frozen embryos. Destroying them—it’s almost like murder, isn’t it?”
The basement had utilitarian concrete floors and walls, in contrast to the careful appearance of the floors above. A generator hummed in one corner, near a series of chrome tubs and industrial refrigerator units.
Carol was examining the shutoff valve for the sprinkler system while a technician fingerprinted the area when a sudden thought struck her. She glanced at her watch. “Hell!”
Grabbing her cellular phone, she punched in the number and moved impatiently around while the phone rang. “Eleanor? It’s Carol. David hasn’t left yet, has he?”
While her ex-husband’s wife went to look for David, Carol thought of how much she loved her son and how relatively little she saw of him, especially now that he’d reached his teens and had, it seemed, countless things competing for his attention. She was uneasily aware of how often she made stern resolutions to set aside time for him and how frequently the demands of her job got in the way.
“Hello?” Even with that one word David sounded cautious, cool.
“Darling, I’m sorry. I know I said I’d be at your school sports day, but—”
“Mum, you promised!”
“I know I did, and I meant it, but something urgent’s come up. I might get away for an hour or so.”
“You won’t, Mum.” His disgust was obvious.
“David, you know how much I wanted to be there to see you run.”
“But I’ll still pick you up on Saturday.”
“Mum, I’ve got things to do this weekend, okay, so don’t bother.”
Keenly aware that he was punishing her for yet again breaking a pledge to make time for him in her life, Carol said, “David, I do want to see you.”
“Gotta go, Mum, or I’ll be late. Bye.”
Snapping the phone shut, she made a mental note to call him this afternoon. Or perhaps she could steal a few hours and at least make an appearance at the school. She shrugged that thought away. At this stage in an investigation, it was impossible.
She ran up the metal fire escape two stairs at a time, thinking ruefully that this would probably be her exercise for the day. The fire door opened into the corridor outside the laboratory. Bourke was approaching with a slight man who seemed so anxious to get to her that he was elbowing Bourke out of the way. He had thin dark hair and emphatically arched eyebrows that gave him a look of constant surprise.
“Dr. William Vail—” Bourke began. He wasn’t allowed to finish.
“Inspector Ashton? I’ve been waiting for some considerable time, and I have two staff members outside who must be given permission to enter the building.”
“What are their names?”
“Gild Milton is Dr. Halstead’s personal assistant. She’s been standing in the street using my cell phone to contact staff members to tell them not to come to work. Several times a police officer told her to move on and I had to intervene.”
His glare made it clear he was inclined to hold Carol personally responsible for this. “And aside from Gilda, I must have Tom Lorant. He’s in charge of the technical side of the clinic, and I’ll be needing him with me to help assess the damage.”
He rushed on, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but some very important patients are served by the Halstead Clinic. Very important. It’s unconscionable that any Tom, Dick, and Harry can be tramping around the premises while I’m refused entry!”
He was short, and lightly built, but his booming voice belonged to a much larger man. Carol could almost see his heels rising as he strained to attain her height and look her directly in the eye.
Noting that he hadn’t even mentioned the death of his partner, Carol said mildly, “This is a secured area. I can assure you that only authorized personnel have entered it.”
Dr. Vail’s circumflex eyebrows shot up. “Your police people—I can understand that—but what about the firefighters in the middle of the night? Did anyone check their credentials?” He looked around the devastated laboratory. “Anything could have been taken…”
“There’s an adjoining office that’s also been extensively damaged,” said Carol.
“The records!” Vail skirted a pile of collapsed roof tiles and hurried toward a doorway in the back wall of the lab. He pushed at the door, which had obviously once been shiny metal but was now blighted with patterns of dark colors from the heat of the flames. “This door should be locked. It’s always kept locked.”
He peered into the darkened room. “There’s no light.” He glared at Carol. “How can I see if there’s no light?”
The pungent smell that gusted out at them stung the back of Carol’s throat. Beside her, Bourke produced a flashlight and played its beam into the room. Metal file drawers had been pulled out, and the shells of two monitors gaped open, their screens destroyed. The floor was covered with the remains of burned paper and melted plastic.
“My God.” Vail was obviously stunned. “Who could have done this?”
Carol said, “I’ll arrange for Ms. Milton to join you, and one of my officers will accompany you while you do a room-by-room inventory of the entire clinic. If anything’s missing, we need to know about it as soon as possible. Perhaps you can start in the undamaged section of the building. After scene-of-crime has finished here, you can see if anything’s salvageable in this office. Lights will be set up by then.”
Carol found herself watching with fascination as his extraordinary eyebrows descended in a frown. “That will have to wait. First I have to check the basement. If the emergency generator didn’t kick in for the freezing units, it’ll be a disaster. A disaster!”
“As a matter of urgency I also require a comprehensive list of all patients and all staff.”
Her question made him bounce with indignation. “That’s impossible. Quite impossible. There are privacy issues. I can’t give you names without permission from the people concerned.”
Bourke said, “I’m afraid privacy takes a backseat in a suspicious death investigation.”
“Suspicious death?” Vail looked from one to the other. “Are you saying Brin was deliberately killed?”
He seemed so surprised that Carol asked, “What was your first thought when you heard his body had been found?”
Vail moved his shoulders uncomfortably. “I don’t know…” He brushed a hand over his lank hair. “Well, if you must know, I thought Brin was hoist with his own petard. You know, he set the place on fire and got caught in it.”
“That’s interesting,” said Bourke, taking out his notebook and pen. “Exactly why would you think that?”
“You know…” Vail made a vague gesture, eyeing the notebook with suspicion. “You must have heard. The clinic was in trouble.”
“The court case? The bad publicity?”
Vail scowled at Bourke’s blunt questions. “Yes, that, of course, but Brin was in financial trouble, too. I don’t know the details”—he gave a sour smile—“as Brin didn’t believe in sharing information, even if it might have a vital effect on me.”
“Could you be more specific?” said Carol.
Her tone was pleasant, but Vail’s face was closed. “I don’t believe I can.”
“When did you last see Dr. Halstead?”
He looked at her with suspicion. “I didn’t see him last night, if that’s what you mean.”
“When did you see him?”
“I didn’t pay much attention. Why would I, having no idea this was going to happen?” He sounded aggrieved. “The best I can estimate—and this may not be totally accurate—is six-fifteen, when I was packing up for the day. Met Brin in the washroom, actually.”
“Did he say anything about his plans for the evening?”
“Of course not. I mean, we were colleagues, but our personal lives were just that—personal.”
“And after you left work? Did you go home?”
“I don’t see what business it is of yours—” He broke off, then said grudgingly, “Yes I went straight home. Spent the evening with my wife. I hope that satisfies you.” He looked at Bourke, seeming to only then realize that he was taking notes. “Perhaps I should have legal representation,” he said. “I don’t want to say too much. I know how you cops twist things.”
“These are just routine questions,” said Carol. She didn’t look in Bourke’s direction, as it was likely he was hiding a smile at her use of the standard misstatement, so beloved of fictional detectives. There were no routine questions in a homicide case.
* * *
When she’d arrived at the clinic it had barely been dawn, so Carol decided to go outside and reconnoiter in daylight. As soon as she entered the lobby area, she could see through the chrome-edged entrance doors a flurry of activity in the media contingent outside. Ignoring the cameras turned her way, she examined the lobby. The smell of smoke pervaded the area, but there was no visible damage. Light poured through a glass roof, two stories above. At intervals down the shiny black walls were alcoves where the luxuriant fronds of ferns spilled over in green cascades. Carol fleetingly wondered how they were tended. Whatever system was used, they were annoyingly greener and thicker than the ferns she cultivated at home.
The back wall of the entrance area was broken by a wide opening flanked by two huge blue ceramic pots containing more greenery. Through the opening was a reception area furnished with deep chairs in black leather. In contrast, the entrance to the corridor that led to the laboratories was an insignificant door with only the word Private inscribed.
The floor of the entrance area was glossy white, but its perfection had been smeared and scuffed by the traffic to and from the ruins of the laboratory. Behind the gleaming reception module—Carol decided desk was too pedestrian a term—THE HALSTEAD CLINIC appeared in discreet blue lettering. There were no security cameras. Carol wondered with a wry smile if this omission might be on account of the reticence of celebrity clients, who might not welcome any recording of their visit to a fertility clinic, however upscale it might be.
The double doors opened soundlessly as she approached them. In early summer it was still cool in the mornings, but the brassy glare promised a hot afternoon. Carol said a few words to the uniformed officer guarding the building before going out into the street to survey the area. The Halstead Clinic was on a side street in Paddington, just off the eternal bustle of Oxford Street. Carol had ordered the immediate area closed, and traffic barriers barred each end of the short block.
The media had appropriated part of the closure and chafed behind crime-scene tape, along with various members of the public who had gathered in the hope that something interesting would happen. At Carol’s appearance, reporters and videographers were galvanized into action to record something—anything—for the evening news.
Carol acknowledged them with a brief inclination of her head, then turned her attention to the building and its immediate environs. The clinic took up much of the block, and a great deal of money had been spent to create a dazzling edifice that spoke of refined luxury, not vulgar excess. THE HALSTEAD CLINIC again appeared in unembellished blue letters by the side of the shallow black steps that led to the entrance doors. Gleaming white walls had their chaste surface inset at intervals with black geometric designs. Smoke-gray tinted windows were edged with sparkling chrome.
A third of the block was taken up by the parking area. It was difficult to make a parking lot elegant, but this one had ebony pillars at its entrance and was artfully landscaped to give the impression that one was parking in a tailored grove of shrubbery and trees. Carol walked around it, considering how easy it would be to find cover and escape detection.
A lane ran at the rear of the building. Here the white wall was unadorned and the loading dock a functional gray. The heavy mesh electric door was down and locked, but by pressing her face close to it Carol was able to see the outlines of Halstead’s BMW inside.
She continued around the building, finding a fire door on the other side. It could only be opened from the inside, and had, she knew, a spring mechanism that snapped it shut immediately after the door was released. None of the windows was designed to be opened, and there was no sign that any window near ground level had been tampered with. It was clear that there were only three possible entry points to the building, and it was most likely that the front entrance or the loading dock had provided the murderer a way in.
Her reappearance on the other side of the clinic encouraged one bold TV reporter to duck under the tape and approach her. Shoving a microphone in Carol’s direction, the toothy young man said in breathless tones, “A reliable source says that Dr. Halstead was stabbed to death before the fire. Can you confirm that, Inspector?”
Carol had a moment’s amusement at this guess. Very little official information had been released, other than the fact that a body, believed to be that of Dr. Brin Halstead, had been found in a burned lab at his clinic. It was a classic news-gathering trick to invent a detail and try to get a response that would give some indication of the true facts. She could make his day by saying, “Stabbed? No, we think Dr. Halstead was bludgeoned to death.”
Instead she said smoothly, “I’ve no comment at this time.”
Ignoring him, she turned to survey the buildings across the road from the clinic. At the end farthest from Oxford Street was a private home with a high brick wall blankly facing the street. Directly opposite was another office building, single-story and an anonymous beige. Carol could see a notice board with a list of tenants by the door. She could also see several people behind the windows gazing out at the activity outside.
Making a mental note to send someone to interview everyone in both buildings, she took a deep breath untainted by anything but vehicle exhaust fumes and prepared to go back to the cloying, smoke-scented air of the clinic.
“Excuse me.” The voice was high-pitched and breathy.
Carol looked around to see a woman wearing black pants and an oversize top that swamped her fragile body. She had a long face and thin, nervous hands. Her dark hair, lightly streaked with gray, fell past her narrow shoulders.
The uniformed officer beside the woman said, “I’m sorry, Inspector, but this lady insisted that she had something important to tell you.”
“I’m Ursula Vail,” she said, showing small white teeth in a fleeting smile. She didn’t look directly at Carol but kept her head slightly bent as she gazed somewhere past her shoulder. “I drove my husband here. He’s inside.”
“It’s okay,” Carol said to the officer, who moved back to his post.
“I wanted to have a private word with you.”
There was an underlying whine in Ursula Vail’s voice that Carol had already decided was likely to go from irritating to downright exasperating in short order.
Carol said, “How can I help you?”
“I think it’s rather that I can help you.” Ursula Vail stepped closer, her eyes averted. Carol caught the scent of a heavy musk perfume.
“You see, Inspector,” Ursula Vail went on, “my husband is honorable and loyal, so he’ll think it his duty to conceal all the things that Brin Halstead has done. I don’t have any such scruples.”
“Perhaps we can speak later.” Carol didn’t want to alienate a possible source of information, but any interviews with Vail’s wife would be in the future when the investigation had progressed beyond the initial stages.
“Of course, you’re right,” said Ursula Vail. “You won’t want to be bothered now. Just tell Bill that he’s to call me on the mobile phone when he wants me to pick him up. Would you do that, please?”
“Ms. Vail?” said Carol as the woman turned to go. “Just routine, but would you mind telling me how you spent last evening?”
Ursula Vail seemed pleased to be asked the question. “Why, I was with Bill, at home. I got in about six, and he arrived at his usual time, around seven-thirty. We had dinner, and then the two of us spent the rest of the evening in a slothful way in front of the television. Not that I watch it closely. I do prefer to read or knit. Do something useful. Anyway, I believe we went to bed early, around ten-thirty, only to be woken with the dreadful news about the clinic.”
Carol thanked her, then watched as she hurried across the street. Ursula Vail’s answer had sounded rehearsed. It had been Carol’s experience that a person who was lying often gave too much information in an effort to convince. But then, Carol had to admit, it was a question so obvious, in the circumstances, that almost anyone would have thought of how they’d respond.
* * *