P J McGavelry’s body resembled a bonsai, contorted and twisted in the final paroxysms of death. He lay on the carpet, beside an overturned chair and was the focus of three uncomfortable-looking crime authors. A cut crystal glass had emptied its contents, and the random drip as the unidentified liquid impacted the sodden carpet provided an imperfect metronome soundtrack to the crime scene. If it was a crime scene, DI Hartley corrected himself.
The shout had come in fifteen minutes ago and he’d picked the short straw, caught in the act of buying a cappuccino too close to the Festival Theatre. He thought it was a wind-up at first – dead body at a crime festival. Then the office said it was in the green room and the door had been locked from the inside by the other authors waiting to appear on stage.
‘You’re kidding, right?’
They hadn’t been.
Outside the green room the festival organiser was in danger of turning himself inside-out, fingers twitching like LSD crazed maggots.
‘They wouldn’t let anyone in. Said they’d only open for the police. It’s Jim-Jams, he’s our star attraction!’
DI Hartley could make little sense of his distraught reference to pyjamas. ‘Stand back sir, I or one of my colleagues will be wanting to speak with you and anyone else who has had access to this room.’ He slipped on a pair of gloves, awkwardly pulling on paper overshoes in the cramped corridor before rapping on the door.
‘Police. Open the door please.’
There was the sound of a key being turned, the door opened to reveal a room which in normal circumstances would be dominated by the old oak table taking ownership of the centre of the room, carved chairs surrounding it as if waiting for the next Masonic meeting. Instead, the eye was drawn to the figure curled up on the floor and the face, distorted in what must have been an excruciating death.
Apart from the corpse, the room contained three other authors whose attention kept returning to the figure on the floor with morbid fascination. DI Hartley silently cursed the surgical masks covering their faces. You could tell a lot from someone’s expression – now all he had to go by were their eyes. He sighed in exasperation. When were the others going to get here?
‘Can anyone tell me what happened here?’ He retrieved the police notebook from his jacket, tested the biro by writing down the date and time.
‘We were all sat around the table, just having a chat before going on stage.’ The only woman there spoke, her voice devoid of any tremor. She sounded as if she was on stage now, reading from one of her own novels.
‘Then Jim went into some sort of fit, clutching his throat. He was dead before he hit the floor...’ A rotund man took over the conversation, before being interrupted himself.
‘And we locked the door straight away.’ The sepulchral voice belonged to a tall man dressed in an unlikely combination of jeans and Harris Tweed jacket. ‘We are all crime authors. We know how these things work.’
DI Hartley sighed again, this time with feeling.
‘Why hasn’t anyone called an ambulance, or a doctor? Forgive me for stating the obvious, but wouldn’t that be the first thing anyone would do before locking the bloody door shut?’
The tweed jacket drew himself up even taller in response to the DI’s outburst.
‘I am a doctor. I did what I could, but he’s had a severe anaphylactic shock. By the time I’d realised he wasn’t just choking on his drink it was too late.’
‘You say you’re a doctor?’ The DI’s tone managed to express doubt in a manner that had been perfected over years of policing. ‘How does someone die of anaphactic shock with a doctor sitting at the same bloody table?’
‘Anaphylactic shock officer.’
The woman took over. ‘Dr Montgomery hasn’t been practicing for years officer. He’s now a famous author – as are we all.’
DI Hartley could see the smug smiles the three exchanged even through the surgical masks they wore.
Christ on a bicycle. The unhelpful thought was dismissed as soon as it appeared in the DI’s mind. ‘I can see by the dead body on the floor that you must be out of practice! Right. Let’s have your names, starting with the body on the floor.’
The silence that followed was palpable. The DI looked up from his notepad. ‘One of you will have to speak for him, unless Easter comes early this year.’
The rotund man’s eyes were wide open as he started to speak. ‘Don’t you know who that is?’
When the DI’s expression made it clear that he in fact did not know who the body on the floor was, the man continued.
‘That’s Jim McGavelry! He’s sold millions of his Miss Anne Throppe Investigates books. He’s famous!’
‘Famously boring.’ The woman’s barbed comment chilled the air, already uncomfortably cold with a window half-open to the chill November evening.
‘You didn’t like him, Miss…’
‘Miss Jane Jessie Jackson. JJJ.’ She added unhelpfully.
‘Peter Somersett – with two t’s.’ The rotund man was next to speak, accompanied by the near silent scratch of the DI’s pen on paper.
‘Dr Charles Montgomery.’ Tweed jacket completed the set.
‘Was this the glass he’d been drinking from?’ The DI consulted his notebook, ‘Jim McGavelry?’
‘Yes. Water. From the same jug we’ve all been drinking from. And nobody has touched the glass.’ JJJ added this last point with a flourish as if to prove their credentials and knowledge of how to behave at a crime scene.
The DI carefully tipped the glass back upright to retain the last of the liquid for forensics to examine. There was a birthday card standing open on the table next to the glass, a cartoon of a small yellow bird, bald boy and dog gathered around a cake with arms raised in excitement.
‘Was it his birthday?’ The DI indicated the card.
‘Yes.’ Peter Somersett nodded. ‘And his deathday.’
DI Hartley’s eyes narrowed. This small group were not reacting in the way he’d expect when faced with a recent death. No hysterics, no remorse. If anything, they all seemed rather pleased with themselves.
‘Did anyone have cause to kill him? Could this be more than an accident?’
Three pairs of eyes met his over blue surgical masks.
‘He was an arrogant bastard officer, but are you seriously suggesting this could be a murder?’ Dr Montgomery laughed before continuing. ‘At a crime festival!’
The others joined him at that point, so much so that Peter Somersett had to lower himself onto a chair, wheezing for air.
‘I’m glad you’re all taking this so seriously. We have a dead man here and at the moment each one of you is a suspect.’
The DI’s outburst had the desired effect of calming them down.
‘Now, let’s start from the beginning shall we?’ He checked his watch, the others should be here soon and then this lot can be taken to the station for forensics to look at and be questioned. See how funny they find that!
‘Is there any more light?’ The room was lit by wall lights, their yellow glow barely sufficient for him to write by. The doctor flicked a switch by the door and a crystal chandelier burst into light, throwing the room into stark outline.
‘Thank you.’ DI Hartley spared a glance at the chandelier, its unexpected opulence casting rainbow patterns on the walls where the cut glass surgically divided light into its constituent parts.
‘You say he died of analphatic shock,’ he directed this at the doctor, aware he’d mispronounced the word again.
‘Anaphylactic officer. I hesitate to imagine what analphatic shock could be.’
The detective fixed him with a look that spoke volumes.
‘What, in your considered medical opinion, killed him?’
‘Oh, that’s no secret, officer. Everybody knew he had an allergy to peanuts. His rider is most specific, even to the point of banning the sale or consumption of peanuts at any venue he’s asked to appear at.’
The DI wrote the word peanuts in his notepad, eyes returning to the birthday card as the significance of the cartoon characters came to mind.
‘And the card. Who bought him the card?’
‘It was from the three of us, officer. An in joke if you like.’ JJJ would be smiling under her mask, he could tell by the way her eyes crinkled.
‘Did he enjoy the joke?’
‘No. Jim Jams had a humour bypass as soon as he reached The Times best seller lists.’ She raised her hand to her chin, adjusting the mask. ‘He took himself very seriously after that.’
‘Jim Jams?’ the DI queried.
‘P J officer. PJ. It was what we called him.’
The DI sighed again, before continuing his investigation.
‘So, he died of a peanut allergy?’ His pen scratched away. ‘Are any of you in possession, or have recently eaten, any peanuts?’
‘Good Lord no officer.’ Peter Somersett had recovered from his wheezing. ‘We all knew that exposure to peanuts was a death sentence for him. Nobody would be so thoughtless.’
The DI thought it through, observing the three authors in turn as he turned their comments over in his mind.
‘If he had such a severe allergy, why wasn’t he carrying an Epi pen?’
The doctor responded immediately. ‘Brexit and the pandemic. Can’t get deliveries from Europe and those we can get – there’s no lorry drivers to deliver them.’
‘He hasn’t one on him – one you could have used to save his life?’
‘No officer. I was only discussing the problem with him the night before at the bar. Said I’d try and use my contacts in private health to snaffle him a few but you can’t get one to save your life.’
DI Hartley studied the doctor with a practiced eye.
‘We will have to ask you all to come to the station when my colleagues arrive, to provide statements.’ And have forensics test them thoroughly for traces of peanuts he wrote. A strong breeze blew in from the open window, knocking over the birthday card. He could see the flashing blue light from a squad car light up the courtyard outside and felt a sense of relief that he could soon leave this lot to someone else.
‘Just one last question, for the time being, why didn’t you call for an ambulance? They might have been able to save him.’
The doctor held his hand up as if he was admitting to a crime.
‘My doing, officer. I knew that we wouldn’t get through on the 999 emergency service in time, much less have an ambulance here within the hour. More like four hours these days. No, I had to try and save him myself.’
‘He did, officer!’ The woman with all the J’s butted in. ‘Dr Montgomery tried to keep him going, he really did.’
‘Yes, kiss of life, hitting his chest – all of that,’ Peter Somersett nodded like the Churchill dog. ‘He did everything he could.’
There was a knock at the door. ‘Ambulance service, where’s the casualty?’
DI Hartley indicated the corpse, and they waited until the two medics made the redundant announcement that he was dead. Outside came the sound of a police siren, accompanied by the tell-tale flash of cameras.
‘I thought you said you hadn’t called an ambulance?’ The DI asked.
‘Didn’t say that officer. Just said it would be too late and a waste of time.’ The doctor’s calm eyes returned DI Hartley’s glare.
After the room had been cleared, forensics had finished their work and the window eventually shut tight; the caretaker turned off the chandelier and locked the door. The last of the peanut oil burnt off the crystal chandelier, filling the room with its earthy scent.
© Crystal, 2022, Andrew James Greig
Andrew James Greig’s first book, Whirligig, was listed for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award and shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize 2020. The second in the series, A Devil's Cut, was released in 2021. In September, A Song of Winter will be published – an environmental thriller set in Scotland.