If you love someone you would be willing to give up everything for them, but if they loved you back they’d never ask you to.


Tác giả: Val McDermid
Thể loại: Trinh Thám
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Chapter 24
er small pale hands looked too fragile to wield a big cannon like that, but the barrel wasn't trembling. Whatever was driving Flora, it was powerful stuff. "Flora," Helen said calmly.
"It's all right, Helen," Flora said, not taking her eyes off me.
Not with me it wasn't. I'd had enough of people waving guns at me. And frankly, I didn't think Flora was in the same league as Peter Lovell's gunmen. I glanced over at Helen Maitland and let my jaw go slack.
"My God!" I exclaimed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Flora's hand jerk as her eyes swiveled toward Helen. On the instant, I launched myself, right leg jabbing up and out at shoulder height, my own voice roaring in my ears like Bruce Willis on heat. Everything suddenly seemed to be in slo-mo; my foot connecting with her shoulder, Flora toppling toward the floor, her gun arm flying out to one side, her finger tightening on the trigger as I landed on top of her, my body tensing against the expected blast of the gunshot.
A tongue of flame spurted from the gun barrel, then died as Flora released her pressure on the trigger.
I'd been scared shitless by a cigarette lighter.
I'd been scared, no two ways about it. But now I was really, really cross. When I'd walked through the door, I'd been feeling sympathetic. My instincts had all been to find a way out of this situation that didn't mean Helen Maitland spending the rest of her useful life behind bars. Now I wasn't so sure that was what I wanted.
"That was really silly, Flo," Helen remarked in an off¬hand tone I'd never have been able to manage in the cir¬cumstances.
I disentangled myself from Flora's hair and limbs and pushed myself back to my feet. "It was a lot more than silly," I said. "For fuck's sake. I could have really hurt you, you flaming idiot."
Flora threw the gun across the room. It clattered into the kitchen unit next to Helen. Then she curled up into a ball and burst into tears.
Helen picked up the lighter and laid it on the kitchen table, then moved to Flora's side. She crouched down and put her arms around her. It felt as if Flora wept for a very long time, but it was less than five minutes by the kitchen clock. I didn't mind. It gave my heart time to return to its normal speed and rhythm.
Eventually, Helen steered Flora into a kitchen chair and sat down beside her. "Even a real gun wouldn't stop the police running those voice comparisons," I said. "I'm not daft enough to embark on a confrontation like this without leaving a bit of insurance behind in case some idiot pulls some brainless stunt where I actually do get hurt."
"Then it's all over," Flora said dully.
"How can you say that?" Helen demanded, pulling away. "How can you think that I... That's crazy."
"It's not crazy, actually." Flora's voice was shaky. "You see, if the police did start to run comparisons on that 999 tape, they would find a match."
"Look, Flora. I don't know where you've got this idea from. I didn't kill Sarah," Helen protested. "I'm appalled you could think so."
"I don't think so. No one knows the truth better than me."
There was a silence as Helen and I digested the impli¬cations of Flora's words. Then the enormity of my second screw-up in two days hit me. I'd been right about the obsessive power of love being responsible for Sarah Blackstone's death. But I'd picked the wrong candidate for the killer. I'd been so convinced that Helen was the killer I hadn't even paid attention to Flora.
"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" Helen asked. There was an edge of horror in her voice.
"It was you, wasn't it?" I asked. Flora said nothing. She didn't have to. We both knew the truth now. "So tell me. Was I close? The scenario I painted? Was I on the right lines?"
Flora pushed her hair back with her free hand. "Why are you so keen to know the details? So you can run to the nearest police station and turn me in?"
I sighed. "The reason I became a private investigator was because I like to know the reasons why things hap¬pen. I understand the difference between the law and jus¬tice. I know that handing people over to the police isn't always the best way of ending things. If you want to pre¬vent me going to the police, you've got more chance talk¬ing to me than you have trying to terrorize me. I have a client who has an interest in Sarah Blackstone's death. She has her own, very pressing reasons for wanting to know the truth here."
While I had been speaking, Helen Maitland had been rummaging through a drawer in the kitchen table. As I got to the end of a speech that owed more to the British commanding officer in The Great Escape than any innate nobility of spirit, she pulled out a bashed packet of Silk Cut. "I knew there was a packet in here somewhere." She ripped the cellophane off, flipped the top up, ripped out the silver paper, shoved a cigarette up with her thumb, and pulled it out with her lips. She picked up the gun and lit the cigarette. Pure bathos.
"I think we're in deep shit here, Flora," she said through a sigh of smoke, "but from what I've seen of Ms. Brannigan, it seems to me she's the person who can best deal with that. I think you should tell us what happened." Flora started crying again. I still wasn't impressed. "I didn't mean to kill her," she said through a veil of hair and tears.
"I know that," Helen soothed in her practical, no-nonsense way. There was going to be a reckoning between these two, I could see that in her eyes. But Helen Mait¬land had the sense to realize this wasn't the time or the place. "It's not your style, Flo."
Flora did a bit more weeping, and Helen just sat there smoking, her eyes never leaving her lover. It was impossi¬ble even to guess at what was going on behind that blank stare. Finally, Flora sat back, pushed her hair away from her face, and scrubbed her eyes with her small hands, like a child who's been crying from tiredness. She took a deep breath, gave Helen a pleading look, then turned to face me. "I really didn't mean to kill her," she said. "I didn't go there with that intention."
"Tell me about it," I said. Helen only crushed out one cigarette and lit a second.
Flora breathed out heavily through her nose. "This isn't easy," she complained.
"Easier than killing someone," I remarked.
"Not really," Flora said tremulously. "That happened in the heat of the moment. Before I even knew I had the knife in my hand, she was dead. Telling you is a lot harder, you have to believe that, Helen."
Helen nodded curtly. "So what happened, Flora? I want to know just as badly as Ms. Brannigan does."
Flora pushed her hair back from her face again and adopted a beseeching expression. I couldn't get a handle on this woman at all. The image she projected was of a fairly timid, vulnerable innocent. Then I'd get a flash from those dark eyes and I'd feel like an entire brigade of dark, supernatural nasties were dancing on my grave. I realized exactly what Maggie had meant about the dragon and the maiden. I could see that it might be a powerful erotic mixture, but it left me feeling pathetically grateful that the gun hadn't been for real. Flora was a woman who could easily have pulled the trigger then pulled the same "I didn't mean it" routine over me that she was giving us now over Sarah Blackstone.
"Can't it wait till we're alone?" Flora pleaded.
"Ms. Brannigan already knows too much for us to throw her out now," Helen said. Somehow, her words didn't scare me as Flora had. "I suspect that telling her the whole story is the best chance we've got of salvaging something from this mess." I couldn't have put it better myself.
Flora looked as if she was about to protest, then she registered the determination in her lover's face. "It all started when Helen was diagnosed with cervical cancer," she said.
"I know about that," I interrupted her, not wanting to let her get into a flow of pathos too early in her narrative. "It resulted in a complete hysterectomy. What had that to do with the murder of Sarah Blackstone?"
Flora darted me a look of pure malice. It wasn't lost on Helen Maitland. This time, when Flora spoke, her voice was more brisk. "Helen was desperate to have a child, and as soon as she was diagnosed, she got a gynecologist friend of hers, not Sarah, to harvest her eggs for the next three months."
"Why?" I asked.
Helen stared at die table and spoke rapidly. "Part of me hoped that a full hysterectomy wouldn't be necessary, that even if I couldn't produce fertile eggs anymore, I might just be able to have a child by artificial insemination, or even surrogacy. You know, get someone else to carry my child. So we took what eggs we could harvest before my surgery and froze them. It's dodgy, freezing eggs; nobody really knows yet how successful it is. But I had this crazy idea that even if I couldn't have a child myself, at least my genes might continue. And if all else had failed, at least I could have made an egg donation to someone who needed it."
Not for the first time in the past few days, the desper¬ate nature of the need to reproduce hit me between the eyes. I said a small prayer to the goddess of infertility that it would continue to avoid taking up residence in my soul. "Right," I said, determined to move this along and keep the emotional level as low key as possible. "So Helen had her eggs frozen. How does that get us to murder?"
"One morning a couple of months ago, Helen had a really strange letter in the post. It was from Manchester..."
"I know about that too," I interrupted, partly to maintain control over events, partly to impress both of them with how much I'd already found out. "It contained a baby's photograph and a lock of hair and a message of thanks."
Helen's composure showed a crack for the first time. "The baby was the spitting image of Sarah at the same age. I couldn't believe the similarity. I'd heard Sarah talk¬ing about the technical possibilities for making babies from two women's eggs, and I realized that's what she was probably doing. I work with cystics, so I have access to DNA testing facilities."
"They were able to get DNA from the cut hairs?" I cut in.
"There are always researchers who love a challenge and one of the women at St. Hilda's relished the chance to extract viable DNA from the hair shafts. I bribed one of my students to get a blood sample from Sarah. He told her it was for random testing in some experiment he was doing into some obscure aspect of blood chemistry, and she let him take it. The DNA test was very clear. Sarah was one of the parents of the child." She was smoking now as if she'd made it her lifelong ambition to be a forty-a-day woman.
This time, it was Flora who reached out, gripping Helen's free hand tightly. Helen continued, almost talk¬ing to herself. "It was all the more bitter because that was the issue that split us up. I wanted a child desperately, but Sarah didn't. I knew subfertility treatment was close to the stage where it would be possible to make a child from two women. And she refused point blank to do it with us. She said she wasn't prepared to experiment with my body. That if the experiment produced a monster, or even a handicapped child, she wouldn't be able to live with her¬self. Me, I thought it probably had more to do with the fact that she absolutely didn't want to share her life with a child. I eventually realized I'd rather have the possibility of a child than the certainty of life with her. You can imagine the kind of rows..." Her voice tailed off into a quiet exhalation of smoke.
"You must have been devastated to discover she was experimenting with other women," I said in the crass mode of television news reports.
Helen pulled a face. "I think if she had been in front of me when I got the DNA results through from the lab, I might have killed her. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was actually glad that I hadn't had her child. That I didn't want a daughter of mine to consist of half Sarah's genes. Distance doesn't lend enchantment, you know. It allows you to put things in perspective. I hadn't stopped wanting a child, but I'd stopped caring about Sarah. I didn't even hate her any¬more. Despised her, yes, because there wasn't anything in her life she wouldn't betray. So I didn't actually want to kill her for very long."
"Long enough to tell Flora?" I asked softly. Flora turned on me then, eyes wide and angry. "Don't try and blame Helen. She said nothing of the sort to me. It was my idea to go and see Sarah. Helen didn't even know I was going."
"So why did you go, if it wasn't to confront Sarah with her double cross?"
"Yes," Helen said. "Why did you go to see her?" Flora gave a tired smile. "I went to try to persuade her to do for us what she'd done for those other women. My eggs and yours. So we could share a child."
There was a long silence, Helen's eyes raking Flora's face as if she was trying to scour any falsehood from her words by reading her features. Then her head dropped into her hands. She didn't cry; after a few moments, she looked up, dry-eyed, and said, "That is an extraordinary thing to say."
"It's the truth," Flora said. "Why else would I have gone to see her?"
"I had no idea you felt like that." "What? That I loved you that much, or that I wanted a child that much?" Flora challenged, chin up.
"Either or both," Helen said, her voice tired. "What did Sarah say?"
Flora looked away, her face clouding over. I was start¬ing to feel seriously redundant here. "She laughed in my face. She said she wasn't going to give a baby to a brain¬less bimbo and a compulsive obsessive. So I told her that if she wouldn't cooperate, I'd go the authorities and tell them exactly what she was doing."
"Not a clever move," Helen said, reaching for another cigarette. "Sarah and threats were never a comfortable mix." Her cool irony was starting to get to me. Sooner or later, an explosion was going to come. The longer she kept the lid on, the worse it was going to be. I hoped I'd be well out of the fallout zone when it did. "How did she react to your threat?" I asked. "She grabbed me by the lapels and shoved me up against the kitchen counter," Flora said, still incredulous that someone in her world would do such a thing. "She kept banging me against the counter, telling me I was a dirty blackmailing bitch and that she knew a lot of women who'd happily kill to keep the children she'd given them. I was terrified. She kept twisting her hand in my coat, it was so tight it was strangling me. I was desperate. I groped about on the worktop behind me and my hand touched a knife. I just grabbed it and thrust it up into her. I wasn't thinking, I just did it. And she sort of fell back onto the floor. I was standing there, holding the knife, watching her die. And I couldn't do a thing about it."
"You could have called an ambulance," Helen said, her voice cold.
"I did. I went straight to the phone box down the street and called an ambulance."
"Not then, you didn't," I said. "You did one or two other things first. You cleared up any signs of a struggle. You unlocked the back door, leaving the key in the lock, went outside and smashed a pane of glass to make it look like a burglary. You took off your bloodstained mac and checked nobody was about, then you walked calmly out of the front door and up to the phone box on the corner. And then you phoned 999 and told the operator you'd just seen a black man running out of an open door on that street with a bloodstained knife. By which time, Sarah Blackstone was dead."
"It wouldn't have made any difference if I'd phoned straight away," Flora said desperately. "She died so quickly. Honestly, Helen, she was dead in seconds."
"Not that quickly," I said coldly. "She can't have been dead for long otherwise the ambulance crew would have told the police there was a discrepancy between the time of death and the time of the call-out."
The way Flora looked at me, I was glad there wasn't a knife handy. "Let's face it, Flora, you couldn't really afford for her to live, could you?" Helen said bleakly. "Not after what you'd done. No wonder you said to me the next day that you'd give me an alibi if the police came asking. You wanted to make sure you had one, didn't you? Just don't you dare ever say you did it for me."
Flora said nothing. Helen faced me. "I suspect there's a tape recorder whirring away in your handbag."
My jacket pocket, actually, but I wasn't about to tell them that in case either of them got any smart ideas. "Technology's got a bit smarter than that these days. I wouldn't still be alive if I didn't believe in insurance," I said.
"So now you go to the police, is that it?"
"Helen!" Flora wailed. "I can't go to jail!"
"I don't think that's necessary," I said. "The way Flora tells it, it sounds pretty much like self-defense that got out of hand. I don't think she's a risk to anyone else. I don't see any need for any of this to come out into the open."
A cynical smile curled Flora's lip. "You mean you don't want the world to know what that bitch Sarah was doing. I bet your client's one of those women she gave a baby to. She won't want that can of worms opened, will she?"
"Don't push your luck, Flora," Helen said. "Ms. Bran-nigan holds your freedom in her hand. Or wherever she has her tape recorder stashed."
I nodded. "There are conditions to my silence," I said. "If anyone else is charged with Sarah's murder, I can't stand idly by. And if Sarah's secret work becomes public knowledge and I think it's anything to do with you, the tape goes to the police. Is that a deal?"
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