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William A. Ward

Tác giả: Val McDermid
Thể loại: Trinh Thám
Upload bìa: Minh Khoa
Language: English
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Chapter 7
he pleasant, caring atmosphere of the Compton Clinic hit me as soon as I walked through the door. Air subtly perfumed and temperature-controlled, decor more like a country house than a medical facility, bowls of fresh flowers on every surface. I could almost believe they employed the only gynecologists in the world who warm the speculums before plunging them deep into a woman's most intimate orifice. I made a mental note to ask Alexis about it later.
The clinic was in St. John Street, a little Georgian oasis off Deansgate that pretends very hard to be Harley Street. The doctors who have their private consulting rooms there obviously figure that one of the most con¬vincing ways of doing that is to charge the most outra¬geous prices for their services. From what I'd heard, you could make the down payment on one of the purpose built yuppie flats around the corner on what they'd charge you to remove an unsightly blackhead. If Helen Maitland demanded that kind of price for her treatments,
I couldn't imagine there were enough dykes desperate for motherhood and sufficiently well heeled to make it worth her while. But then, what do I know? I'm the only woman I'm aware of who's been using the pill and demanding a condom since she was sixteen.
The Compton Clinic was about halfway down on the right-hand side, a three-story terraced house with a plague of plaques arrayed on either side of the door. Interestingly, Helen Maitland's name didn't appear on any of them. Neither did Sarah Blackstone's. I opened the heavy front door and found myself in a short hallway with a large sign directing me left to the reception area. I noted a closed-circuit TV camera mounted above the outside door, pointing down the hall toward the door I was being encouraged to use. It was a considerable incen¬tive not to go walkabout especially since I hadn't brought a tub of Vaseline to smear over the lens.
One of the many problems with my job is you do so many different things in a day, you're seldom appropri¬ately dressed. If I'd known what the carpet at the clinic was like, I'd have brought my snowshoes, but as it was, I just had to make do with wading through the deep pile in an ordinary pair of leather loafers. There were two other potential patients sitting a discreet distance from each other on deep chintz-covered sofas, reading the sort of home and garden magazine the nouveau riche need to copy to shore up their conviction that they've arrived and they belong.
A tip from the private eye manual; magazines are one of the dead giveaways as to whether you're dealing with the NHS or the private sector. The NHS provides year-old, dog-eared copies of slender weeklies that feature soap stars talking about their operations and TV personalities discussing their drink problems or their diets. The private sector provides this month's copies of door-stop glossies full of best-selling authors talking about their gardens and living with Prozac, and Hollywood stars dis¬cussing their drink problems, their diets, and living with Prozac.
I managed to reach the reception desk without sprain¬ing my ankle. It was pure English country house library repro, right down to the fake tooled-leather top and the cottage garden prints on the wall behind it. The middle-aged woman sitting at the desk had a pleasant face, the lines on it carved by comfortable optimism rather than adversity, an impression supported by her Jaeger suit and the weight of the gold chains at neck and wrist. Her eyes betrayed her, however. They were quick, sharp, and assess¬ing as they flicked over my smartest suit, the lightweight wool in gray and moss green. It felt as if she was instantly appraising the likely level of my bank balance and the concomitant degree of politeness required.
"How may I help you?" she asked, her voice the perfect match for the house and garden images of the decor.
"I'd like to make an appointment with Dr. Maitland," I said, deliberately lowering my voice so she'd think I didn't want the other two women to overhear.
"One moment," she said, leaning to one side to stretch down and open one of the lower drawers in the desk. If Helen Maitland really was the murdered Dr. Sarah Blackstone, the news hadn't made it to the Compton Clinic yet. The woman straightened up with a black A5 desk diary in her hand. She laid it on top of the larger diary that was already sitting open in front of her, and flicked through it to the following Sunday's date. Even I could see that every half-hour appointment was already filled up. If
Alexis was right, there were going to be a lot of disap¬pointed faces on Sunday.
I watched as the receptionist flicked forward a week. Same story. On the third attempt, I could see there were a couple of vacant slots. "The earliest I can offer you is three-thirty on the twenty-fourth," she said. There was no apology in her voice.
"Does it have to be a Sunday?" I asked. "Couldn't I see her before then if I come during the week?"
"I'm afraid not. Dr. Maitland only consults here on a Sunday."
"It's just that Sundays are a little awkward for me," I said, trying the muscularly difficult but almost invariably successful combination of frown and smile. I should have known it was a waste of time. Every medical receptionist since Hippocrates has been inoculated against sympathy.
The receptionist's expression didn't alter a millimeter. "Sunday is the only day Dr. Maitland consults here. She is not a member of the Compton partnership, she merely leases our facilities and employs our services in an admin¬istrative capacity."
"You mean, you just make appointments on her behalf?"
"Precisely. Now, would you like me to make this appointment for you, Ms.... ?"
"Do you know where else she works? Maybe I could arrange to see her there?"
Ms. Country House and Garden was too well trained to let her facade slip, but I was watching for any signs, so I spotted the slight tightening of the skin around her eyes. "I'm afraid we have no knowledge of Dr. Maitland's other commitments," she said, her voice revealing no trace of the irritation I was sure she was starting to feel.
"I guess I'll just have to settle for the twenty-fourth, then," I said, pursing my lips.
"And your name is?"
"Blackstone," I said firmly. "Sarah Blackstone."
Not a flicker. The receptionist wrote the name in the half-past three slot. "And a phone number? In case of any problems?"
I gave her my home number. Somehow, I don't think she had the same problems in mind as I did.
I had time to kill before I headed over to South Manches¬ter to pick up Debbie for our prison visit, but I didn't want to go back to the office. I hate violence and I don't like putting myself in situations where criminal assault seems to be the only available option. I cut down through Castlefield to the canal and walked along the bank as far as Metz, a bar and Mittel European bistro on the edges of the city's gay village. Metz is so trendy I knew the chances of being spotted by anyone I knew were nil. I bought a bottle of designer mineral water allegedly flavored with wild Scottish raspberries and settled down in a corner to review what little I knew so far.
I'd been taken aback when Alexis had revealed that she and Chris had been consulting Helen Maitland for six months. After all, we were best buddies. I had secrets from Richard, just as Alexis had from Chris. Show me a woman who doesn't keep things from her partner, and I'll show you a relationship on the point of self-destructing. But I was pretty certain I had no secrets from Alexis, and I'd thought that was mutual. Even though I understood her motives for not telling me about something so illegal, to discover she'd been hiding something this big made me wonder what else I'd been kidding myself about.
Alexis and Chris had been told about Dr. Helen Mait¬land - in total confidence - by a close friend of theirs, a lesbian lawyer who'd been approached very cautiously by another couple who wanted to know the legal status of what they were planning to do. Because she knew about Alexis's and Chris's desire to have a child, their lawyer friend introduced them to her clients. I sincerely hoped the Law Society wasn't going to hear about this - even two years of a law degree were enough for me to realize that what was going on here wasn't just illegal, it was unethical too. And let's face it, there aren't enough lawyers around who act out of compassion and concern for the prospect of losing one of them to be anything other than bleak.
Alexis had phoned the Compton Clinic and made an appointment for her and Chris to see Dr. Maitland the following Sunday. Obviously, the word had spread since then, judging by the delay I'd faced. She'd been told, as I had been, to go to the back door of the clinic, as the main part of the building was closed on Sundays. Alexis had told me that the initial consultation made interviewing bereft parents look as easy as finding a nonsmoking seat on a train. Dr. Maitland had offered nothing, instigated nothing. It had been Alexis and Chris who had to navi¬gate through the minefield, to explain what they wanted and what they hoped she could do for them. According to Alexis, Helen Maitland had been as stiff and unyielding as a steel shutter.
In fact, she'd nearly thrown them out when she was taking their details and Alexis admitted to being a jour¬nalist. "Why did you tell her?" I'd asked, amazed.
"Because I wanted her to work with us, soft girl," Alexis had replied scornfully. "She was obviously really paranoid about being caught doing what she was doing. That whole first consultation, it was like she was determined she wasn't going to say a word that would put her in the wrong if someone was taping the conversation. And then she was taking down all these details. Plus she insisted on leaving a three-week gap between the first and second appointments. I figured she must be checking people out. And I reckon that if what she found out didn't square with what she'd been told, you never got past that second appointment. So I had to tell her, didn't I?"
"How come she didn't throw you out then and there?" The familiar crooked grin. "Like I always say, KB, they don't pay me my wages for working a forty-hour week. They pay me for that five minutes a day when I persuade somebody who isn't going to talk to a living soul to talk to me. I can be very convincing when I really want some¬thing. I just told her that being a journalist didn't auto¬matically make me a scumbag, and that I was a dyke before I was a hack. And that the best way to make sure a story never got out was to involve a journo with a bit of clout."
I hadn't been able to argue with that, and I suspected that Helen Maitland hadn't either, especially since it would have been delivered with a hefty dollop of the Alexis Lee charm. So the doctor had agreed to work with them both to make Chris pregnant with their child. First, they each had to take courses of drugs that cost a small fortune and made both of them feel like death on legs. The drugs maximized their fertility and also controlled their ovulation so that on a particular Sunday, they'd both be at the optimum point for having their eggs harvested. Helen Maitland herself had carried out this apparently straightforward procedure. According to Alexis, who never forgets she's a journalist, the eggs were then transferred into a portable incubator which Helen Maitland could plug into the cigarette lighter of her car and trans¬port to her lab, wherever that was. Another small detail I didn't have.
In the lab, one egg from Alexis would be stripped down to its nucleus and loaded into a micro-pipette one tenth the thickness of a human hair. Then one of Chris's eggs would be injected with Alexis's nucleus and hopefully, the chromosomes would get it on and make a baby. This nuclear fusion was a lot less immediately spectacular than nuclear fission, but its implications for the human race were probably bigger. It was obvious why the doctor had chosen to use an alias.
I couldn't help wondering what would happen when men found out what was going on. If there was one thing that was certain, it was that sooner or later the world was going to know about this. I couldn't believe Helen Mait¬land was the only one who had worked out the practical means of making men redundant. I had this niggling feel¬ing that all over California, women were making babies with women and doctors with fewer scruples than Helen Maitland were making a lot of money.
That was another thing that had become clear from Alexis's story. In spite of their desperation, Helen Mait¬land wasn't bleeding her patients dry. The prescriptions were expensive, but there was nothing she could do about that. However, her fees for the rest of the treatment seemed remarkably cheap. She was charging less per hour than I do. If the medical establishment had found out about that, she'd have been struck off a lot faster for undercharging than she ever would have been for experi¬menting on humans.
There was no other word for it. What she had been doing was an experiment, with all the attendant dangers. I didn't know enough about embryology to know what could go wrong, but I was damn sure that all the normal genetic risks a fetus faced would be multiplied by such an unorthodox beginning. If I'd been the praying sort, I'd have been lighting enough candles to floodlight Old Trafford on the off-chance it would give Chris a better chance of bearing a healthy, normal daughter. Being the practical sort, the best thing I could do would be to find Helen Maitland's killer before the investigation led to my friends. Or worse. I couldn't rule out the possibility that someone had killed Helen Maitland because they'd dis¬covered what she was doing and decided she had to die. Anyone with so fundamental a set of beliefs wasn't going to stop at seeing off the doctor who had set these preg¬nancies in motion. There was a lot to do, and the trouble was, I didn't really know where to start. All I had was an alias and a consulting room that I hadn't been able to get near.
I finished my drink and stared moodily at the dirty gray water of the canal. Manchester has screwed so much inner-city renewal money out of Europe that the banks of our canals are smarter than Venice these days. The water doesn't stink either. In spite of that, I figured I'd be wait¬ing a long time before I saw a gondola pass. Probably about as long as it would take me to raise the money to buy Bill out of the partnership.
I couldn't bear the idea of just throwing in the towel, though. I'd worked bloody hard for my share of the busi¬ness, and I'd learned a few devious tricks along the way. Surely I could think of something to get myself off the hook? Even if I could persuade the bank to lend me the money, working solo I could never generate enough money to pay off the loan and employ Shelley, never mind the nonessentials like eating and keeping a roof over my head. The obvious answer was to find a way to gener¬ate more profit. I knew I couldn't work any harder, but maybe I could do what Bill had done and employ some¬one young, keen, and cheap. The only problem was where and how to find a junior Brannigan. I could imag¬ine the assorted maniacs and nerds who would answer a small ad in the Chronicle. Being a private eye is a bit like being a politician-wanting the job should be an automatic disqualification for getting it. I mean, what kind of person admits they want to spend their time spying on other people, lying about their identity, taking liberties with the law, risking life and limb in the pursuit of profit, and never getting enough sleep? I didn't have time to fol¬low the path of my own apprenticeship-I'd met Bill when I was a penniless law student and he was having a fling with one of the women I shared a house with. He needed someone to serve injunctions and bankruptcy petitions, and I needed a flexible and profitable part-time job. It took me a year to realize that I liked the people I spent my time with when I was working for Bill a lot bet¬ter than I liked lawyers.
I left the bistro and set off across town to where I'd parked my car. On my way through Chinatown, I popped into one of the supermarkets and picked up some dried mushrooms, five spice powder, and a big bottle of soy sauce. There were prawns and char siu pork in the fridge already and I'd stop off to buy some fresh vegetables later. I couldn't think of a better way to deal with my frustra¬tions than chopping and slicing the ingredients for hot and sour soup and sing chow vermicelli.
At the till, the elderly Chinese woman on the cash register gave me a fortune cookie to sample as part of a pro¬motion they were running. Out on the street, I broke it open, throwing the shell into the gutter for the pigeons. I straightened out the slip of paper and read it. It was hard not to believe it was an omen. "Sometimes, beggars can be choosers," it said.
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