The sun set over the city of Newcastle. The end of another day. Sitting in a room full of vacant desks, a lone police inspector rubbed bleary eyes with the palms of his hands. He slouched back in his chair and took a moment to watch the last of the dusk sunlight track its way across the wall. The same evidence over and over again. The same lines of inquiry over and over again. It felt more like a futile formality than an investigation now. He was getting nowhere.
The Inspector’s line of thought was cut off as his secretary breezed into the room, “Time to go now, Inspector.”
“Thank you. I’ll be working late tonight.”
“You already have,” she tutted as she grabbed her coat from the coat stand behind him, “now go home or I’ll lock you in here!” She plonked a grey sunhat on her head decisively.
“You know, that may actually be an option,” he replied absent-mindedly, running his fingers across the keys of his typewriter with his head in his hand.
“Well, you’re not going to solve the suicide of Irena Spargo by staring into space in the middle of a dark room, are you?” she replied in exasperation, cleaning and pocketing her reading glasses.
There had been such an uproar when Irena Spargo had dived out of that window. She wasn’t very well known. Not at all. She was just a lowly computer, employed to perform mundane calculations for a university professor. But the image of a woman, twisted and bloody, lying at the foot of a prestigious institution, could be a powerful one. It was determined quickly enough that it was a suicide; the reason for the suicide, however, proved harder to uncover and, as public interest waned, the number of police assigned to investigation was gradually whittled away. He was the only one left.
“What you need is sleep,” continued the secretary, “time to think it over. You know that.”
“I know,” the Inspector relented, standing and shuffling over to retrieve his own overcoat, “It’s just, this woman seems to have no reason for doing what she did. She was happy, she was in a secure job, good health, strong constitution, and she definitely isn’t the type of person you’d expect to just go and kill herself without good reason.”
“She took drugs, didn’t she?”
“Yes…” he conceded, “nootropic drugs – cognitive enhancers – for mental health. We found out she’d been taking them toward the end of her life. But I don’t think that has anything to do with it.” He switched off his desk lamp and they made their way toward the exit.
“How can you be so sure?”
He shrugged, “Reading about them, talking to people who knew them. After so long you start to get to know these people, without ever meeting them yourself. How they think. The pressures that life puts on them. I don’t think the drugs were the reason. It’s something else.”
“Does it need to be?”
“Everything happens for a reason. Things just don’t seem to fit together in this case.”
At the door he put on his own hat and they both donned a pair of round sunglasses. “If things don’t seem to fit together, perhaps you haven’t got all the pieces?” she offered.
“Very cryptic,” he chuckled, following her out onto the street.
“I mean it,” she insisted, “what’s missing? What don’t you know about Irena Spargo?”
Just before she closed the door, the telephone rang. The Inspector barged back in. The secretary threw her hands up in despair.
He picked up the receiver on the fourth trill, “Hello?”
No reply. Just breathing.
“Who is this?”
“Bed 6. Ward 38. Royal Victoria Infirmary. Come quickly.”
“How did you get this number?”
“I have information pertaining to the death of Irena Spargo.”
He didn’t waste time putting the receiver back in its cradle.
* * *
“Can you drive any faster?” he pestered the taxi driver. The girders of the Tyne Bridge flickered past silently as they crossed the river. The wait was excruciating. Who was this mysterious informer? Why were they in the infirmary? Was it a hoax? Only time stood between him and the answers.
He didn’t even wait for the taxi to stop before jumping out, “Keep the change!” and striding into the hospital under the day’s last light. Visiting hours ended soon; not that he couldn’t visit at any time as an Inspector, but it would be easier if he was able to visit under normal circumstances. By the time he got to the reception desk he’d almost managed to regain some semblance of professionality, “Could you show me to ward 38, please?” A nurse, who had watched him enter the building, regarded him with concern and ushered him to follow.
“You’ve been wearing your eye protectors, I hope? From dawn ‘till dusk? Even when it’s cloudy?” she pestered as they made their way through the corridors of the medical building.
“Err, yes,” he muttered, “back there, I was only stepping out from the taxi. The sun’s down now, anyway.”
“Even so, we still get too many people with cataracts on these wards. U.V. rays can travel through cloud, you know.”
They reached ward 38.
“You’re a police inspector?”
“There’s a Mr. P. waiting for a police inspector in bed 6.”
“There is? Oh yes, there is. That’ll be me. Thank you.”
The nurse nodded and walked away.
Ward 38 was lit softly under electric lights on the ceiling, the light reflecting off the tiled walls. Each bed was shrouded by an eggshell blue curtain hung from brass rails. A number was pegged to each rail: 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6. He went to pull back the curtain, then hesitated.
“Hello? Is that you?”
The voice he heard on the telephone. He pulled the curtain back. The patient was dimly illuminated, but the Inspector saw enough. He gasped.
The man was completely bald and unnaturally thin. Under the medical gown he seemed to be breathing very deeply, but the Inspector suspected that was just the man’s lanky build accentuating the movement of his chest. His eyes were dim and hazy, his mouth not quite held closed. This was a very sick man.
“Are you the police inspector?”
“Good God! What happened to you?” exclaimed the Inspector, striding over to the bedside as if to save the man from his affliction.
“So much, Inspector. So much. More than one man should ever see.” His voice was weak and broken; the Inspector offered a glass of water from the side table, but the man refused, “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it. What is this? It looks like radiation poisoning…”
“…and you would be right. I’m dying, Inspector. There isn’t much time. They say I have just a few more days to live.”
“But how? There’ve been no nuclear exchanges since the Great War. Not in Europe, anyway. You must have been poisoned some other way, perhaps through ingestion of a radioactive substance.”
“I was not poisoned, Inspector. Not like that.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Oh, please…” He wasn’t in the mood for that kind of talk. He’d heard it often enough and it was rarely the case. But he wasn’t here for that; this man was a lead in a case that had gone on for too long, “What do you know about Irena Spargo?”
“Irena Spargo was a great scientist. If only people knew the entirety of what she had achieved, she would be held up as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of human discovery.”
A great scientist? What didn’t he know? The Inspector moved on, “You said you had information pertaining to the death of Irena Spargo. What would that be?”
“She killed herself. By jumping from a first story window of the Armstrong building of Newcastle University.”
The Inspector shuffled impatiently, “Yes, we know that. But why?”
“Because she knew she was going to die anyway.”
She was going to die anyway. The new information stood out like a lighthouse in a sea of mystery. She had no underlying medical conditions, in fact she was remarkably healthy considering what she’d been through in her life. That could only mean…
“They were going to kill her.”
“Who? Why?” He felt like he’d been reduced to spitting out single-word questions. Never had the prospect that somebody was trying to kill Irena Spargo ever come to the fore. Perhaps somebody had pushed her to suicide – that possibility had been explored right from the start – but somebody trying to kill her? That was news.
The dying man, apparently overcome by fatigue, closed his eyes and exhaled deeply, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
The Inspector, tired from the long day’s futile work, was suddenly overcome by a burst of annoyance, “I’ll have none of that! This is a police investigation, tell me straight or don’t tell me at all!” He looked up to see the man, gaunt and wide-eyed, staring back at him, very much awake.
The Inspector held his hands up, “I’m sorr…”
“No, I’m sorry,” interrupted the man, “It’s just…” his eyes went glassy, “it’s just… so hard to explain.”
Suspecting the man had experienced some kind of emotional trauma, the Inspector softened his resolve, “Try.”
“It’s a long story…”
He rubbed his eyes tiredly, “Take all the time you need.”
“…and they may try to kill you if they find out you know.”
That made him look up. If what this man had told him was true, what had been uncovered so far was nothing compared to what was really going on. The threat made him want to find out all the more.
“Tell me. What don’t I know about Irena Spargo?”
The man smiled.